In 2015, Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra won the world’s attention with his Oscar-nominated Embrace The Serpent, a bold black-and-white drama that followed an Amazonian tribesman as he leads white scientists into the wild in search of a curative plant. Culture clash also plays at the heart of his much-anticipated follow-up, Birds of Passage (A.K.A. Pájaros de verano), which was Columbia’s submission for the Best Foreign-Language Academy Award this year. In the 1970s, the Wayúu community of northern Colombia’s Guajira Desert was dedicated to its traditions, observant of omens, and suspicious of outsiders. But as an emerging drug trade gave them access to wealth and power, their community became less isolated and less united.
Directed by Guerra and his longtime producer Cristina Gallego, Birds of Passage begins as a story of love. Rapayet (José Acosta)is a young man who has an eye toward success and to wedding the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes). Once the two dance during her coming-of-age ritual, it’s love at first sight. But his family has a sordid reputation, so hers is unimpressed with his plea for her hand. They demand a dowry of 30 goats, 20 cows and five necklaces. To get it, Rapayet will have to think beyond his coffee trade. A chance meeting with a marijuana-seeking American tourist puts him down a path that will lead to marriage, wealth, greed, murder, and war.
As an American watching Birds of Passage, I noted plot elements that seemed born from American gangster films. There’s the brash cohort with a big mouth and an itchy trigger finger, an omen of trouble for our handsome anti-hero. There’s the doting wife who serves as steely queen beside her king. There’s macho posturing, bitter bloodshed, and a reckless young gun whose wretched behavior is grudgingly overlooked until he crosses a line not even his money’s wealth can erase. But Birds of Passage casually rejects the expectations of this genre, creating a unique and unpredictable exploration of a tale that feels familiar yet fresh.
Though Birds of Passage begins with Rapayet and Zaida, neither is the film’s protagonist. At best, Rapayet is the eye of its storm. He is calm, no matter the situation, but disaster surrounds him. Still, the film is not about his arc, as it repeatedly abandons him to follow other characters, including his demanding mother-in-law Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez) and the impulsive brat prince Leonídas (Greider Meza). The true protagonist of Birds of Passage is this Wayúu tribe who was seduced, made powerful, then torn apart by marijuana dealing. At the start, their community is content and proud, living in huts, sleeping in hammocks, yet able to feast on special occasions, and celebrate their traditions. However, Rapayet’s influence and wealth leads them to big beds and bigger houses that become targets for jealousy and retribution.
Unlike American gangster movies, this Columbian offering does not revel in the excesses of wealth. There will be no glitzy montage to invite the audience to swoon vicariously in this expensive experience. Instead, there is a mounting mournfulness, as wealth pulls Rapayet and his family further and further away from their heritage. Leonidas dramatically displays the dark side to this affluence by using a bulging bag of cash to bully a laborer into a demeaning task. But even softer, subtler scenes give a chilling sense of something precious lost. Where Rapayet, Zaida, and their baby once cuddled together in a traditional and cozy hammock, his adolescent daughter moves on to a bed that is wide, white, and so big her little arms can barely reach the traditional craft her grandmother aims to show her from the bedside. There is isolation here, subtle yet haunting. And it hangs over the film’s second act like the growing sense of dread.
This uncommon gangster film not only rejects the spectacle of wealth but gunfights as well. There will be blood, but scenes of violence are not shot to awe the audience. Most deaths happen off-screen. Then the bodies, crumpled and bleeding, are regarded with an unflinching but non-fetishizing eye. And the death audiences might expect and even crave will be denied their gaze. Instead, we’re given a sad song, filled with longing and regret. Because where Birds of Passage will deliver on spectacle is by celebrating the Wayúu culture.
There’s an easy but unmistakable elegance to the women’s loose frocks with bold patterns, a dapperness to the breezy button-downs and jaunty hats of the men. In the opening dance ritual, Zaida’s robes billow like a bird’s wings, making her a vision mystical and moving. It’s easy to see why Rapayet wants her and wants to be a part of this spiritually rich community. Beaded necklaces, woven hammocks, and delicately detailed mourning rites are all captured with a frank appreciation and solemn respect. Dialogue about traditions, word messengers, and the warnings carried by certain wild life further expose the audience to this incredible community with nuance and insight, and often using the indigenous Wayúu language. With an unhurried pace, Guerra and Gallego usher us through a wondrous world on the brink of change, making us witness to its glories and horrors.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com