Birds of Passage Review
Acclaimed director Ciro Guerra's Birds of Passage takes the well-worn drug-trade, family-drama story but re-focuses it through a new and unique lens. Spanning across the 1960s, 70s and 80s in rural Colombia, the film charts the sharp rise and fall of a Wayuu family who become involved in the drug trading industry. Birds of Passage is Guerra’s latest film following the critically acclaimed Embrace of the Serpent, and is co-directed with Embrace producer Cristina Gallego. Their film focuses on many of the same themes as Embrace with a poignant exploration into the loss of tradition, culture and history in conjunction with colonialism, illegal drug trafficking and the concept of capitalism.
Gallego and Guerra’s film opens with a traditional Wayuu ceremony - young Zaida (Natalia Reyes) is approaching womanhood and after several months in isolation is ready to be presented to the rest of her tribe. Her mother Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez) , the matriarch of the Pushaina family, is looking for the right man to become Zaida’s husband and share in the fortune of their family. Enter Rapayet (or Rafa, as comes to be known, played by José Acosta ). He’s the nephew of the tribe’s Peregrino (word messenger) and desires Zaida’s hand in marriage, despite not having nearly enough wealth or stature to pay the required dowry to Úrsula. Utilising the white tourists desire for high grade marujana, Rafa strikes a deal between his Uncle and cousins who grow the plant and the Pushaina family, resulting in his marriage to Zaida.
Birds of Passage doesn’t lean heavily towards a single message or mantra, but the idea that money corrupts is often inferred from what happens next. As the Pushaina’s wealth increases, power dynamics become fraught, mistakes are made and the two families struggle to reconcile. The narrative follows many of the same beats as a traditional crime-family film, but Birds of Passage is as concerned with power structures and corruption as it is with identity and generational dissociation from culture and traditions.
As Rafa, Zaida and Úrsula become immersed in the growing wealth Rafa is bringing to the tribe, the Pushaina’s move away from the traditional Wayuu way of life which becomes a constant source of contention between Rafa and Úrsula. Guerra and Gallego present this clash of western-focused capitalism with the traditional communal Wayuu living in many ways, but none more so than in the stark, concrete house the Pushaina’s erect in the middle of the desert. It’s luxurious, complete with an ornate king-sized bed in Zaida and Rafa’s bedroom. Yet, the two choose to sleep in the traditional Wayuu hammock, showing a strong desire to stay connected to their roots even whilst their lifestyle cannot accommodate this anymore.Greed, wealth and the destruction that both brings are threads which run through Birds of Passage, stitching the narrative across eras and generations together.
For a film concerned with the drug trade and war between families, Birds of Passage turns away from actively depicting violence onscreen. Instead, violence is often communicated via word of mouth, gunfights obscured by buildings or battles fought in the distance or on the periphery of the frame. It is the direct opposite of glorification - the focus is on the people and relationships rather than showcasing the violence they inflict on one another. The only red on camera is the shawls, fabrics and patterns of the Wayuu clothing and decorations - often striking in contrast to the vast yellowing desert stretching out in the distance. Guerra and Gallego knows how to draw the eye in wide shots, giving context to the small pocket of action, something Guerra also utilised in Embrace of the Serpent.
Near perfect films are hard to come by, but to say Birds of Passage fits this description is no over-exaggeration. A combination of intricate storytelling, authentic performances and breathtaking visuals result in a masterpiece of cinema, the perfect follow-up to Guerra’s Embrace.