LFF 2018: Birds of Passage Review

After years of seeing stories set inside the South American drug trade you’d be hard pressed to find a way to tell one from a new angle. We’ve all seen the tales of men who get rich quick before being seduced by power and money and their inevitable bloody downfall. Yet Ciro Guerra returns with his producer and co-director Christina Gallego to deliver a fresh perspective on the roots of the Colombian drug trade.

Birds of Passage [Pájaros de verano] is a different beast to the trippy and mind-bending Embrace of the Serpent, although it follows through with many of the same themes and is no less revelatory. Tribal traditions, dreams, spirits and family all linger in the air, although the visions and hallucinations that made their last film such an intoxicating and hypnotic experience are tethered more formally to the narrative.

This is a story told from the perspective of the Wayuu clan in the north-east region of Colombia and the Pushaina family who are led by its matriarch, Ursula (Carmiña Martínez). She is introduced preparing her daughter Zaida (Natalia Reyes) for a rites of passage which centres around a traditional courtship ritual and it’s here that Raphayet (Jose Acosta) first announces himself and asks for the hand of the young woman. There’s a dowry to be paid, but Ursula is quietly confident it will be too high for Raphayet who only trades in low level coffee and alcohol.

Split across five chapters, it begins in the early 60s where the American Peace Corps are in the country warning people of the evils of Communism. “Long live capitalism!” Raphayet’s long time friend and business partner Moises (Jhon Narvaez) jokingly calls out after promising they can deliver a stack of weed the hippies are desperate to get their hands on. It’s a statement that rings throughout the remaining chapters as it marks the beginning of their involvement in the drug trade.

How the plot develops from here won’t be a surprise to those familiar with classic Mafioso crime sagas. It includes many of the archetypes we've come to expect, such as the domineering figure overseeing the family from behind the scenes, the character who is quickly overawed by the perks of big time success, and the tempestuous young buck who threatens to bring the whole thing down. We know their traits well enough but they are intelligently used and only add to the Shakespearean nature of the story.

What Guerra and Gallego show over the course of 20 years is the gradual corruption of respected locals laws and traditions that have been passed down through thousands of years, eventually replaced by money and fire power owned by alijunas (outsiders who cause damage). The directors do all they can to ensure there is real authenticity in the people being represented onscreen and pay respect to the details of their ancient cultures and languages.

The birds of passage referred to in the title are what locals call the planes flying in and out of the region transporting the narcotics. You are briefly reminded of Tom Cruise’s American Made which saw events from an American perspective, while here you see the backstory of how the drugs reached the CIA supported scheme. Birds are constantly used as a motif throughout and Ursula, Raphayet and Zaida are all haunted by portentous dreams they all fail to heed.

DoP David Gallego captures the flat, expansive landscape and the bold colours that stretch from the domineering sky to the ancestral clothing worn at ground level. At times the environment is reminiscent of a classic western and it constantly feels like the spirits are lingering at the edge of the frame. Birds of Passage suggests they remain watching over the people indigenous to these plains even though greed and Westernisation has done all it can to wipe them out.

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An engrossing and unique take on an old story that confirms Guerra and Gallego as pioneers of world cinema.


out of 10


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