Birds of Passage

BIRDS OF PASSAGE. Carmiña Martínez, Natalia Reyes, José Acosta, Jhon Narváez, Jose Vicente Cotes, Juan Bautista, Greider Meza. Directed by Ciro Guerra, Cristina Gallego. 125 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong violence and a sex scene).

‘Birds of Passage’ is a crime epic with a world cinema twist, filtering its story about the rise and fall of a Colombian drug empire through the specific cultural lens of the Wayuu people, an ethnic group native to northern tip of mainland South America. As one might expect from a foreign indie like this, parts of the film will prove a little too languorously paced for some, but this is an impressively mounted and compelling narrative that is drenched with an overwhelming sense of place and culture.

When Wayuu man Rapayet (José Acosta) requests the hand of Zaida (Natalia Reyes), her aunt and the tribe’s matriarch Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez) demands an impossibly large dowry. Making use of his strong connections with the outside world, Rapayet and his friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez) sell a large quantity of marijuana grown by Rapayet’s cousin Aníbal (Juan Bautista) to a visiting American. Securing Zaida’s dowry is merely the beginning, as Rapayet, Moisés and Aníbal continue to export the drug, rapidly scaling their business to meet the high demand of the U.S.’s burgeoning counterculture.

Told across five “cantos”, or songs, the screenplay by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal follows many beats that will be familiar to crime film enthusiasts. Clashes within Rapayet’s growing empire are the primary source of conflict, with Moisés filling the role of the dangerous live wire that forces our antihero to choose between his personal and professional responsibilities. As the years flow by, this role is soon overtaken by the petulant and volatile Leonidas (Greider Meza), whose actions threaten to incite a war within their operation. However, they also take a subversive approach to other familiar elements of the genre. Can you recall the boilerplate kingpin’s wife, whose hesitance or ignorance about her husband’s business is eventually twisted into complicity and reliance? Here, that trope is refigured into the aunt-in-law; while Zaida is more easily shaped by Rapayet’s actions, Úrsula’s growing involvement in Rapayet’s business soon erodes her insistence upon maintaining traditions, putting her at odds with her fellow elders. This is not just a morality play about the corrosive effects of drugs and violence, but also a reflection on the loss of indigenous cultures at the altar of Western “progress”.

Cinematographer David Gallego captures the spectacular desert-scapes of Colombia in all their stark beauty, the featureless stretches of yellow-white sand adding a surreal, otherworldly tone to the unfolding narrative. This prevailing sparseness drives our attention towards the performances, attention that the cast capably bears across the board. As Leonardo Heiblum’s hypnotic score, which makes impressive use of the discordant drones of traditional instruments, regularly reminds viewers, this is not your standard gangster fare, and directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego have assembled a roster of performers that fit snugly into the unusual requirements of their hybrid crime-ethnographic film. Perhaps due to its slower paced moments, ‘Birds of Passage’ does feel a little overlong at 125 minutes. However, even in its slower passages, the sensual immersion in the fascinating indigenous world and the escalating tensions of the drug war at the core of the narrative will keep audiences invested.

More than anything, ‘Birds of Passage’ earns its critical appreciation (it was selected to open the Directors' Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018). Hot off their acclaimed 2015 feature, ‘Embrace of the Serpent’, it’s fair to say that Guerra and Gallego could have done just about anything and traded on their reputation as a new South American team to be reckoned with. Instead, they’ve done something that feels genuinely pioneering. We’ve seen similar reconciliations of indigenous cultures and film genres in the past (Mel Gibson’s bloody but surprisingly accurate ‘Apocalypto’ comes readily to mind), but the blend at the centre of ‘Birds of Passage’ feels truly new and special.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out October 3.

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