Just as Embrace of the Serpent grounded itself in indigenous stories, so too does Ciro Guerra’s followup film, Birds of Passage, honour the agency and complexity of native South American peoples. Moving from the rainforest to the deserts of northern Colombia, Birds of Passage is a family crime epic that never casts its central Wayuu tribe as either innocents or savages, instead keeping them as conflicted, flawed humans.
Loosely based on true events, Birds of Passage shows the somewhat accidental formation of one of Colombia’s first drug cartels. It all starts innocently enough, the smitten Rapayet (José Acosta) selling weed to American hippies in order to afford the expensive dowry for the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes). But Rapayet’s wildcard outsider contacts smell opportunity and it’s not long before mansions are being razed and blood is being spilled on sacred ground.
These changes are superbly handled, traditions and superstitions informing gang business and vice versa until everyone is stuck in violent, hardline positions of their own making. Even as convention is trampled by greed, Guerra and co-director Cristina Gallego keep spiritualism intact, so when familiar gangster movie situations arise, they’re always from an entirely new perspective.
Disconcerting dream sequences are loaded with memorable imagery and deeply affect their characters, to the point where the possibility remains that there is a supernatural force at least observing events, if not getting directly involved. Stunning visuals fill the waking hours too, and Rapayet’s family compound is a mesmerisingly surreal setting, all bright whites and trippy angles isolated in the arid desert.
In terms of plotting, Birds of Passage won’t surprise those who’ve watched The Godfather or The Sopranos – but you’ve never seen this story through this lens before. It’s a grand and compelling insight into a new world previously unexplored on screen.
CAST: José Acosta, Carmina Martinez, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Marvaez
DIRECTORS: Ciro Guerra, Cristina Gallego
WRITERS: Maria Camila Arias, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
SYNOPSIS: During the marijuana bonanza, a violent decade that saw the origins of drug trafficking in Colombia, Rapayet and his indigenous family get involved in a war to control the business that ends up destroying their lives and their culture.