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The first thing we see in Birds Of Passage, a drama set among the Wayúu people of northern Colombia, is a ritual courtship dance that seems to accompany a young woman’s coming-of-age ceremony. Entering a circle of family and friends, the man seeking the woman’s favor proceeds to run backwards, while she, face painted and wearing a cape-like fabric, charges toward him with the cape’s “wings” stretched out wide. It’s a memorable sight, suggesting that the film will explore a culture unfamiliar to most American viewers. Instead, however, Birds Of Passage quickly veers onto a well-trod path, becoming just the latest portrait of a bloody war among drug dealers and distributors. Unique background elements provide flavor, but apart from the drug of choice here being marijuana rather than cocaine, what unfolds could hardly be less rote.
Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, who previously collaborated on the Oscar-nominated Embrace Of The Serpent (though only Guerra was credited as director on that one, with Gallego as producer), the movie has been divided into five “cantos,” or songs, spanning 1968 to 1980. After dancing with Zaida (Natalia Reyes) in the opening sequence, Rapayet (José Acosta) is told that he’ll need to come up with a hefty dowry: 30 goats and 20 cows, plus some expensive jewelry. Desperate, he forges an alliance with a neighboring, apparently different-yet-related group, trading coffee for weed and then selling the latter to some Peace Corps hippies. This arrangement quickly blossoms into the same illicit business model recently seen in such films as American Made and Loving Pablo, with gringos flying the drugs out in small planes and leaving giant bundles of cash in return. Rapayet and Zaida wed and start a family, which of course only means that there are more ready victims on hand when things inevitably turn violent.
Gallego and Guerra clearly want to show how the advent of the drug trade destroyed previously peaceful indigenous communities, and they make a point of noting longstanding customs—like a taboo against harming a “word messenger”—that get tossed aside in the name of greed and revenge. The more Wayúu-specific Birds Of Passage is, the more compelling. Its broad strokes, however, frequently amount to Embrace Of The Cliché. “I knew you didn’t have it in you,” sneers a man being held at gunpoint by his best friend, following a brief interlude of trigger-free tension.
Anyone care to guess what occurs half a second later? Plus, all of the tragedy that befalls these characters over more than a decade is generated by not one but two impulsive idiots in the time-honored mold of De Niro’s Johnny Boy (with Rapayet as the pragmatic Charlie). The film needs this figure so badly—to gun down business partners for no good reason, or to rape the weed supplier’s beloved daughter and kick off a cascade of vengeance—that it starts grooming a replacement even before the first one gets killed! That sort of generic macho posturing, borrowed from dozens of previous action movies, turns fascinating cultural elements into mere window dressing for a standard-issue trafficking body count.
In modern movie terminology, “epic” usually just means long, crowded and grandiose. “Birds of Passage,” Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s follow-up to their astonishing, hallucinatory, Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent,” earns the label in a more honest and rigorous manner. Parts of the story are narrated by a blind singer — a literally Homeric figure — and the story itself upholds Ezra Pound’s definition of the epic as “a poem containing history.” It’s about how the world changes, about how individual actions and the forces of fate work in concert to bring glory and ruin to a hero and his family.
The history in question, divided into five chapters, involves the Colombian drug trade from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, but the film defies narco-drama clichés and superficial period atmosphere. Set among the Wayuu of northern Colombia (an Indigenous population whose language and customs survived the Spanish conquest and the rise of the modern nation-state), it also resists the temptations of exoticism and hazy magic realism. Even as you may be reminded of other sweeping chronicles of fortunes made and souls undone by ambition and greed — “Giant,” “The Godfather,” even “Breaking Bad” — your perception of the world is likely to be permanently altered. The experience made me think of some of my favorite movies (I’ll add Visconti’s “La Terra Trema” to the list), but it’s also like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Not only because of the cultural and geographic milieu, which may be as unfamiliar to many Colombians as it will be to most North American viewers. The landscape the Wayuu inhabit, on a peninsula jutting into the Caribbean, includes patches of desert and lush, green hillsides. Mostly ranchers and farmers, the Wayuu conduct trade and manage potential conflict through a system based on ritualized exchange and communication. A family’s honor is bound up with its word, and certain members, designated “messengers of the word” are treated with special deference. “Don’t shoot the messenger” is close to a sacred principle.
The Colombian film “Birds of Passage,” directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, is an ethnographic thriller—a drama set in rural northern Colombia, centered on one indigenous group, the Wayuu, and based on the true story of a drug war that, from the late nineteen-sixties through the early nineteen-eighties, inflamed the region and engulfed a Wayuu family. It’s a movie involving a wide spectrum of experience, but its elements are nonetheless profoundly integrated. It’s not a thriller with some local color adorning the action or a documentary study with an imposed dramatic structure but, rather, a view of Wayuu life and the built-in fault lines that, in the inevitable contact with the surrounding world, tragically give way.
“Birds of Passage” also has the contours of a classical romance, in which a young couple faces obstacles that are particular to the Wayuu and yet grandly archetypal. The drama begins with the Wayuu ceremony for a woman’s coming of age: Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has spent the customary year of literal confinement, under the tutelage of her mother, Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), mastering handicrafts (weaving, knitting) and emerging before her clan in a public coming out that’s also a courtship ritual. Wearing a billowing cape and head scarf, her face painted, surrounded by a crowd of people defining a stage-like circle for her emergence, Zaida does an onrushing dance in which the young man who chooses to court her, Rapayet (José Acosta), joins her, running and dancing backward as she charges, and deftly showing his physical aplomb, in meeting her step for step and gaze for gaze—and concluding, to the crowd’s admiration, by whispering to Zaida, “You are my woman.”