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Birds of Passage

“If a man kill a man thus circumstanced, if he have no relatives, let half be paid to the king, half to his guild-brethren.”

A look of realism into the perils of the drug trade entangled within a ritualistic society in the Guajira Desert of Colombia. A family faced with the prospect of marriage finds itself in league with a quick rise to prosperity and the corresponding fall from grace as they navigate the sordid humanity of criminals and the authenticity of their family history.

Birds of Passage is broken apart in five “cantos” spanning two decades during a period known as “la Bonanza Marimbera” when narco trafficking thrived in the region. A story of Rapayet and his indigenous family that moves from the raptures of courtship to the promise of prosperity unto war. As Justin Chang (LA TIMES) notes: “[i]n favoring an indigenous perspective, grounding its crime-thriller tropes in the rich soil of native tradition, the movie achieves a lyrical power and moral clarity all its own.” Relevant to the modern milieu, the struggle to retain a semblance of  religious authenticity becomes an ever-increasing challenge when violence and family honor become unbridgeable centers of division without the prospect of peace in sight. Helpfully explained by Peter DeBruge (VARIETY):

Over the course of four features together, [directors] Guerra and Gallego have gone a long way to represent native experiences otherwise undocumented on film, but “Birds of Passage” marks the first time they have shared directing credit — perfectly fitting for a film where the female characters hold real power over the men.

From courtship to decline, the film is an unyielding prose in pace and symmetry with the corresponding tension of business and heritage serving as the proverbial rough rope to a short drop. A film rich with the tradition notions of pütchipü’ü whereby the tribal customs of the Wayúu seeks reconciliation through compensation reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon honor culture predating Charlemagne. As Jordan Mintzer (HOLLYWOOD REPORTER) rightly points out:

[T]here’s a spiritual side to Birds of Passage that helps it rise above all the gun-slinging violence, with proverbs, dreams and songs commenting the plot as it unfolds, underscoring how much Raphayet and his tribe were doomed the moment they entered the drug trade.

As one article explains (also the source for the photographs):

Like many indigenous tribes, the Wayuu are polytheistic. Most of their gods or spirits come from nature. The Dream World is an important part of their spirituality and there is a thin line between reality and dreams for the Wayuu. This means that their gatherings, celebrations and holy days possess a degree of pageantry that is quite unique and colorful.

A film without gimmicks or (too much) poetic license, rich with symbolic significance, and appropriately rooted in an authentic depiction of real life events. A film about the Wayúu people who become embroiled in the production of drugs and avarice. A film in slow decay as it boils to eruption in its systematic and poised traces of family, spirituality, and the corrupt worldly humanity that becomes a plague on the region. As Justin Chang writes, again, “a fascinatingly layered study in dueling tribal codes, the ways in which the rules of organized crime clash and intersect with Wayuu rituals and beliefs.”

Fans of films like Vazante and Zama, in their cultural inundation and pace, will need to see this film. Those easily bored should probably return instead to the fields of Narcos or American Made.

RATING: B-

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