Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
“Birds of Passage” starts in 1968 and encompasses a dozen years of violent upheaval in the northern Colombian desert, chronicling the rise and fall of a drug dealer and his family; the desert, however, turns out just fine. “Embrace of the Serpent” director Ciro Guerra’s latest surreal drama, co-directed by “Serpent” producer Cristina Gallego, once against pits the dying rituals of a remote tribe against the striking ambivalence of nature — this time, using the backdrop to explore the origins of the drug trade. While it never reaches the psychedelic heights of Guerra’s previous effort and relies on a more conventional pattern of events, “Birds of Passage” delivers another fascinating tone poem about Colombia’s fractured identity.
The narrative is structure around five chapters, labeled as “Songs,” much like the discordant melodies heard throughout: Wild Grass, The Graves, Prosperity, The War, and Limbo. Each installment takes place within the confines of the Wayyu, an indigenous clan that speaks a mixture of Arawak and Spanish. Guerra and Gallego quickly establish that the Wayuu are a stern, confident people, seemingly at odds with the outside world and steeped in traditions that dictate every facet of their lives. The Wayuu show such commitment to living on their own terms that the sandy, empty vistas surrounding them may as well exist on another planet. The encroaching drug war is a meteor heading straight for them over the next two hours.
The filmmakers dive right into the insular traditions that dictate Wayuu life. In a dynamic opening sequence, young Zaida (Natalia Reyes) performs a coming-of-age dance for the local community, where she’s approached by suitor Raphayet (Jose Acosta), who soon becomes the story’s protagonist. Shrugged off by the family as unworthy of the girl’s dowry, Raphayet launches on a mission across the expansive landscape to retrieve a bounty of cows, necklaces, and mules to win her hand.
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In the process, he recruits his pal Moises (Jhon Navaez), a smiling hedonist who convinces Raphayet to help him deal marijuana to hippies in the Peace Corp. At first, it seems like an easy scheme — if the gringos want to exploit their land, it may as well be a two-way street — but Moises is such a live wire that their antics eventually lead to violent results, and a showdown that forces Raphayet to choose his allegiances. Needless to say, while the exploits of Raphayet and Moises contain hints of an endearing dark buddy comedy, the movie makes it clear that nothing in this remote existence lasts forever.
Each step of the way, “Birds of Passage” fleshes out the clan’s sophisticated hierarchy, with spiritual matriarch of the family (Carmiña Martinez, a standout) calling the shots, taking cues from dreams, and making risky demands of her son-in-law’s growing empire; his wife’s uncle (Jose Vicente Cotes), the so-called “word messenger,” arrives at each scene hidden beneath sunglasses and a cowboy hat to deliver deadpan pronouncements about the family’s demands of their competitors. There’s a disquieting air to these proceedings, which sometimes smothers the emotional possibilities in play — every moment of the family’s life seems dominated by morose proclamations and gloom, as if their imminent extinction were a foregone conclusion, and even Raphayet’s children don’t seem to bring him much joy. Hardly anyone smiles, and nobody laughs.
Yet even as “Birds of Passage” fetishizes its dreary mood, it excels at tracking the gradual impact of crime across generations less invested in playing by ancient rules. Zayda’s younger brother Leonidis (Greyder Meza) grows up taking the lawlessness of the land for granted, and becomes a reckless psychopath whose crude desires precipitate the slow unraveling of the family’s bonds. The movie’s Shakespearean dynamic reaches for “The Godfather” territory as Raphayet’s empire takes shape, building up to the beguiling main set, a plush mansion in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, Raphayet’s own character has a cold, unfinished quality, as if he’s been conceived to merely give this expansive story some measure of a protagonist. His wife fares even poorer; despite her dramatic introduction, she remains a non-entity throughout.
To some degree, the half-realized characterizations reflect just how much the film’s directors prefer to explore the bigger picture. “Birds of Passage” is riddled with extraordinary ceremonies, from bones exhumed to commune with the dead to dreams interpreted for the sake of business decisions. The movie charts a paradoxical trajectory, at once adopting an ethnographic lens to surveying the Wayuu and forcing their dynamic into a pulpy scenario that culminates with an explosive battle right out of “Scarface.”
But this same clash of elements results in a distinctive haunting atmosphere that keeps each new chapter as involving as the last. Set against an atmosphere of hissing insects, whooshing wind, wandering storks and braying goats, “Birds of Passage” remains fixated on the way this rustic existence seems at odds with the advancing threats of capitalist desire. “Death is all around us,” Rapayert says, and later concludes: “We’re already dead.” To that end, “Birds of Passage” represents a seance for a country still working through the ghosts of the past.
“Birds of Passage” premiered as the opening night selection of Directors’ Fortnight at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. The Orchard will release it on February 13.