BIRDS OF PASSAGE, is a crime film, directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, screenplay written by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, and a mind jerk of a drug saga told through stunning, visual images; a tale of drug dealing in South America, before the infamous Pablo Escobar.
It is a dark family story about the indigenous Wayuu people and the outsiders known as Alijuna, in Columbia. The Wayuu is a Native American ethnic group from the northern part of Colombia and Venezuela, with marriage customs far different than the American ideal of a dude asking a girl, if she wants to live in a studio apartment together. The Wayuu handle dating in a far more delicate way; they have a mating ritual that involves a woman of age in a glorious dress with red, facial make-up, chasing men around like a bird in a mighty, fearsome dance. This seems far more advanced than Tinder, or the mating rituals of my early youth, which ended with cheap beer and pizza.
Of course, a dowry is required, which traps our protagonist, Rapayet, played by the quiet but resolute, José Acosta, who wants the beautiful Wayuu woman, Zaida (Natalia Reyes). He doesn’t have the dowry, so he takes a chance and opts to sell weed with his brother to some gringo hippies, working for the Peace Corps, who inadvertently bring destruction to the area they were trying to help. But maybe, the hippies just wanted a fun vacation in Columbia, before they returned to their corporate jobs in the United States? That may seem cynical, but then again, the Baby-Boomers are, by far, The Most Selfish Generation, the ones who had the best that America had to offer in the 60’s, but who are now leaving the next generation with very little, not counting Avocado Toast.
For the drug trade threatens to ruin the Wayuu clan and the lovable but unlucky Rapayet, who tries to do the right thing over the course of two decades, broken into five story chunks: Wild Grass, The Graves, Prosperity, The War, and Limbo. The cinematography in BIRDS OF PASSAGE is heartbreakingly beautiful, from wide shots of a surreal, white house burning in the desert, to Rapayet’s foolhardy but fun-loving brother dancing in front of a jeep, late at night. This is a film to be watched over, and over again, despite how slow it may seem in the beginning, and clocking in a bit over two hours; each frame in the film has been chosen with great care, this is the work of an excellent cinematographer, David Gallego, also responsible for Embrace of the Serpent.
The film’s central horror is based on family and one’s duty to family. What is the right thing to do? Who comes first? If a relative did something stupid and dangerous, which threatened the livelihood of one’s family, could one take the steps to protect them? Has there ever been a more horrific choice, laid out by the gods to test one’s spirit? Ah, the gods are cruel.
Poor Rapayet, suffering from the sins of others, when he simply wants to sell weed and live the good life in the desert. The world presses hard on him, as does the leader of his new family, Ursula (Carmiña Martínez), the spiritual leader of this Wayuu clan, and yet, so harsh, so biased, so willing to set morality aside when it suits her clan, but claiming the high moral ground when she sees an immediate benefit for herself. But life in Northern Columbia is hard, perhaps this is the result of the difficult choices one is forced to make, if one wants to survive.
And yet, she lets a spoiled male member of her clan, Leonides (Greider Meza) insult an older male, by forcing him to eat shit for money; the man eats shit in front of everyone, clutching a bag full of money, while trying not to retch, perhaps the most appropriate image of American capitalism, or plutocracy, ever filmed on-screen. I’ve eaten shit on stage, fake shit, made out of frozen Nutella and flour for comedy, for cheap laughs, and so have many others before me, but this shit wasn’t funny, it was horrible, just horrible to watch. And worse, Ursula stands by him after this act, and far more treacherous acts that he commits in the last moments of Prosperity.
How can this wise woman stand by a bad seed like Leonides? Why doesn’t she find the strength to cast him out? For surely, he is worthless and his actions threaten the livelihood of the clan. But then again, what would I or any one of us do in real life, if forced to make a similar choice? This is the true horror of BIRDS OF PASSAGE, a lingering, thought provoking film about family, ambition, and greed.