In 2018, there’s certainly no shortage of south-of-the-border drug tales. Constantly inundated with cartel stories, true crime narratives on both the big and small screen recount the mythical personae of Latin America’s most notorious drug lords. However, husband and wife filmmaking duo Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent) have crafted a textured sprawling Colombian crime saga that is anything but commonplace. As ambitiously artful as it is infectiously engrossing, Birds of Passage brings an invigorating worldview to a genre so often riddled with clichés, weaving an astute tale of fortune and destruction as it explores long-held indigenous traditions.
“…he and his family become entangled in the drug trade and rising to the top…”
In one of the most bizarre and captivating stories in Colombia’s history, a Wayuu man (José Acosta) sets out to raise enough money to afford a dowry to marry his beloved (Natalia Reyes) and finds himself wrapped up in the emerging marijuana craze–selling pot to gullible American travelers. Over a nearly two-decade stretch from the 1960s to ’80s, he and his family become entangled in the drug trade, rising to the top and living a life that gives way to both indulgent extravagance and unimaginable peril. Soon, his once-isolated tribe sacrifices their cultural traditions, finding themselves subject to the barbarism that so often follows a life of crime.
Despite the cruelty that weaves its way throughout this tale, Birds of Passage boasts a surprising amount of humor. The film maintains a fairly light-heart tone for the film’s first couple of cantos before it ultimately gives way to the brutality that culminates in an explosion of violent frontier justice. However, the tonal gap is bridged so delicately by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, such quiet, reserved storytellers with an eye for emotional gymnastics. With their adoration of both conversational nuances and visual language, the directors craft a gripping narrative that methodically parallels the ingrained sense of honor and tradition that motivates its characters.
“…maintains a fairly light-heart tone…before it ultimately gives way to the brutality…of violent frontier justice…”
While Guerra’s previous film elegantly capitalized on the poignancy of black-and-white photography, Birds of Passage is bursting with life, reveling in a vibrant and colorful ecosystem across Colombia’s Guajira Desert. Much of the film operates in a dreamlike state, with lush, textured illustrations blurring the dividing lines that separate fact and fiction as the viewer’s experience begins to mimic the effects of the illicit products being distributed onscreen. In doing so, the tale is informed first and foremost by the intense emotional landscape that’s communicated through its evocative imagery. Even the unhurried footsteps of birds across a decorative carpet work to unlock an entire lexicon of contemplative empathy.
In its informed use of hallucinatory indigenous folktales, Birds of Passage spans a rich emotional spectrum as it places the familiar would-be drug lord narrative underneath an anthropological microscope. As they explore a culture of word messengers and binding rituals, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra are endlessly fascinated with the ancient traditions that drive their characters, even as outside forces threaten to extinguish their venerable lifestyle. This tale of a rapidly dissolving way of life is one that is at once both deeply recognizable and wholly original.
Birds of Passage (2018) Directed by Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra. Written by Maria Camila Arias, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal. Starring José Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Greider Meza, Jose Vicente, Carmiña Martínez, Jose Acosta, Jhon Narváez.
9 out of 10 stars