Producing a follow up to 2015’s stark Amazonian adventure Embrace of the Serpent must be an unenviable task. Where that film--the first Columbian production to be nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film--seeps in mysticism and the ambiguity that the jungle breeds, Birds of Passage can be surmised more succinctly. It’s the decade-spanning story of a family’s criminal enterprise, reaching the highs and lows of classic Greek tragedy. The deserts and indigenous villages of Columbia, peppered with gun-toting narcos might seem a far cry from the thick foliage of their previous film, but Birds shows co-directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra have a clear focus with their work and their voice is only growing stronger.
Birds of Passage
Director: Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra
Release Date: February 13, 2019
Birds begins in 1968 with Rapayet (José Acosta) seeking the hand of Zaida (Natalie Reyes) in marriage. Zaida’s deep roots in the indigenous Wayuu culture of Northern Colombia demands a proper dowry, enforced strictly by her strong-willed and respected mother Úrsula (Carmiña Martíne), and Rapa goes about pondering just how he’s going to get him all those goats and fancy necklaces such a marriage demands. Weed, man.
Pulling from the historical rise of Colombian drug trafficking, Rapa turns to the marijuana plantations farmed by his cousins, quickly finding buyers in the form of young Americans just lookin’ for free love, man. But why stop there?
Connections to American criminals enrich his family and followers, and Rapa becomes the de facto supplier of weed for foreign trade. And while we do get those scenes of dusty fields where cargo is picked up, and the occasional paid-off official, Birds doesn’t oversaturate the audience with montages of the action. Here we’re mostly concerned with the core familial unit, and how it does or does not survive such a leap. As you can expect, the taint of greed stains Rapa with violence and you know what they say: The bigger they are…
Now this all sounds probably just like something you’d find in any other crime thriller, smacking you over the head with gangland executions and internal feuds. Birds of Passage certainly has that, but it never goes full-Scarface, painting Rapa as someone who sees himself slipping from his culture, yet powerless to stop the business he’s instigated. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, basically.
The spirituality of the Wayuu factors strongly into Birds‘ story, evoking classic westerns in the way we see a culture slowly fade away by way of newer, brasher methods and mindsets. I mentioned Guerra and Gallego’s previous film Embrace of the Serpent and for as different as the Amazon setting might sound, Birds of Passage almost plays as a sequel. The way in which a closed culture can be lost in a flash by exposure to the world and its cutthroat economics is a sad thing we’re all-too desensitized to in 2019, but both of these films make strong efforts to remember these people.
There were times where Birds‘ almost came across as too on-the-nose for me, which is perhaps the fault of any preconceived notions I had. The dialogue is straightforward, the succession of events clear. There’s little ambiguity in what we see and hear, despite the occasional dreamlike flourishes. I came to realize Guerra and Gallego’s intentions with Birds of Passage to be something of a noble cause; there are no pretensions of the art of the film coming before the story that they’re trying to tell.
I was able to catch a Q&A with Gallego following my screening and to paraphrase her, she mentioned how she was approached by many young people who would say “that’s my grandmother,” or “that’s my family.” People whose cultures live and are (hopefully) passed down by their fading relatives; Colombian, Wayuu, or otherwise. Birds of Passage doesn’t want to leave you wondering what it was about. The genre tropes and tragic arcs are identifiable enough. Instead, it wants to leave you wondering just what’s been lost of these and other cultures, and if we can maybe circle back somehow.