Part gritty crime drama with the execution of a origin story that plays out like a ethnographic documentary, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s follow-up to the Oscar nominated “Embrace of the Serpent” new film titled “Birds of Passage” is a undeniably gripping and stirring film that examines the ritualistic world colliding with the moral decay of the modern world. The film is based on actual events that took place between the decades from the 1960’s-1980’s and the film is structured around 4 chapters that all run around in segments of 30 mins. Like “Embrace of the Serpent” both Gallegos and Guerra depict lifestyles and transitions of indigenous people in Columbia losing their traditions and rituals from outside forces.
This time instead of European settlers, the film examines how the era of the regions of Guarija teriitories of northern Columbia were co-opted by drum smugglers from the outside forces of disguised American CIA operatives and travelers, and how the citizens of Colombia got caught up in drug cartels that has now led to a international wretched reputation and infamy for modern Columbia. For years we have also seen Hollywood and big budget movies made by the likes of Michael Bay and Michael Mann, and many other shows like “Narcos” that glorify and rather exploit the crises of the Colombian drug crises and cartels for mass entertainment. “Birds of Passage” main obligation is to make a film about drug crises and struggles of Columbia in the most honest and telling way that is never preachy or didactic.
The film is about Repaety (José Acosta), a poor bachelor who comes from a poor who yearns for the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes), who comes from a much wealthier family and background. In order to get her families approval of marriage, Repayet must find ways to secure more wealth which leads him to the marijuana trade that is introduced by American operatives. The structure of the film takes the traditional rise and fall story that we have seen in many gangster films, where we see Repayet’s business rise in the course of the film as it inevitably declines as tension, competition, family dynamics, and greed escalates as the film reaches its climax.
As the chapters unfolds, “Birds of Passage” becomes an unflinching and uncompromising work that explores the agony and suffering the drug war has created on communities and families. By setting the film as an origin story as it shows the bleak violence that destroyed livelihoods, ripped families apart, and destroyed communities. While the film is indeed violent, its fascinating how Gallego and Guerra stage and depict the violence in the film. Often using cutaways, the violence is executed merely with the aftermath of the violence rather than seeing it exactly unfold. This gives great power to the viewers imagination where they are left with more haunting results than sensationalism.
Gallego and Guerra also bring careful and deep humanism into the characters and culture on display. There is also great authenticity in the casting that echoes the traditions of Italian neo-realism. The film has the aesthetics and feel of a documentary that also has elliptical and sensory moments that would find in a Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick film. The films script which is penned by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde makes the material feel literary as well, as the film opens with the conservation of traditions and norms of disadvantaged and poor people who’s world is collapsed due to the decoy of greed and opulence is quite devastating and a work of stark tragedy.
However this film is not a pity party or even a virtue signaling cry to indigenous people either. One of the films graces is how it examines the sociological conformity of a community that are attempting to find prosperity of easy cash that find the harsh consequences that inevitably await them. Some people are fallen victims to the world, others carefully choose to live in this world so they can gain a world of luxury, beautiful women, massive houses, and deep swimming pools while many others collapse occurs around them. Meanwhile what stands are the traditions that are deeply held onto as the families self-deteriorate and feud with one another. All around “Birds of Passage” is another essential and evocative film into the gangster genre.