Film Review: Birds of Passage

Co-directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s latest is an epic crime drama that plays a little like a Colombian The Godfather, although what we’re actually watching here is the corruption and destruction of a whole culture.

The filmmakers’ follow-up to Embrace Of The Serpent (which Gallego co-produced and Guerra directed solo), is a multilingual saga that plays out over many years, and features sometimes awe-inspiring visuals and atmospherics that, unlike in Serpent, don’t overpower the characters.

Separated into five ‘Songs’ (‘Cantos’), this opens in the 1960s with young Zaida (Natalia Reyes, the best-known player here) emerging from a year of isolation as she “becomes a woman”, engaging in dancing and celebrating, as per the traditions of Colombia’s indigenous Wayúu. Her family are approached by Rapayet (José Acosta), who wants to basically buy Zaida’s hand in marriage, and he is treated with much understandable suspicion by Zaida’s mother, Ursula (Carmiña Martínez).

She asks for a dowry that she knows Rapayet can’t afford, and he realises that he could make that kind of money and more by selling marijuana, especially to the hippie American ‘gringos’ from the Peace Corps hanging around. He and Zaida then marry, a violently criminal industry is established, and, as we move into the 1970s and 1980s, the gun-toting business grows more and more dangerous.

The Wayúu are threatened, and we’re allowed to study a culture and a people rarely seen in any movie, as they observe ancient rituals, talk of ghosts and magic, and even dig up graves to polish the bones of long-dead loved ones in emotionally-charged ceremonies. This might seem strange and creepy to some audiences but, in Gallego and Guerra’s hands, it’s a moving sequence, and it has huge significance for the Wayúu. Too bad they stand to lose it – and so much more.

What must have been a very difficult production has resulted in something quite unforgettable.

Birds Of Passage (Pájaros De Verano) (MA) screens at selected cinemas from Thursday 3 October

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