Birds of Passage

It’s the overall strength of the ensemble cast, not individual performances, that carries this movie about the South American drug trade. The majority of the characters are portrayed by non-professionals who lend a true authenticity to the production.

From The French Connection and Scarface to American Gangster and last year’s White Boy Rick, the illegal drug trade has provided movie fodder for decades. A few of these films have become classics. Others are among the worst movies of the past 50 years.

Birds of Passage takes a unique look at this familiar subject. Almost all drug movies begin in the middle with stories of small-time American hoods and street dealers. The expected anti-hero who spirals into the inevitably tragic world of illicit drugs is also present here, but his story is only one of many and is subordinate to bigger questions. What was the genesis of the South American drug trade? Who were the people who were there in the beginning? And, what happened to them?

The story follows the native tribes of rural Columbia, particularly the Wayúu, from the 1960s until around 1990. Whereas major drug kingpins eventually play a central role in most American films, the Cali Cartel is referenced only in Bird’s final scenes with the assumption that audiences will understand how horrific the story became after our movie has ended.

To be clear, this is a Columbian film with English subtitles. Based on a true story, Birds debuted at Cannes and was Columbia’s 2018 Best Foreign Film submission to The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

For the first half of Birds, drug dealing is a mom and pop enterprise and the film focuses on mom and pop’s extended family slash clan. Hemp has always grown in the Columbian mountains and selling a little weed to a few American Peace Core Volunteers doesn’t seem like a big deal.

The unfamiliar portion of the story is the one about the native tribes and clans who called the region “home” for centuries. Birds of Passage is about ancient traditions and what happens to them, and the people who’ve followed them for countless generations, when opportunity, vast sums of money and AK-47s are introduced into a close-knit subsistence culture. I don’t need to belabor the obvious. You can figure out the story arc for yourself.

Birds of Passage is a well-made movie. Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s direction and the screenplay by Jacques Toulemonde Vidal and Maria Camila Arias are solid. The affection with which the native story is told is genuinely praiseworthy and the attention filmmakers pay to the clothing, jewelry and gestures central to a ritualistic, and very public, courting dance is meticulous. Accepted norms of interaction between men and women, cousins, different castes, persons familiar and strangers, etc. borders on the obsessive.

But it was David Gallego’s cinematography that really stood out for me. The family compound in the mountainous jungle and the sun-baked high desert village convey a powerful sense of history, community and clan. The confidence each character has about their place in the world is tangible. The most heartbreaking scene is one in which the matriarch surveys her hardscrabble world and declares, “We fought the Inca and survived. We fought the Spaniards and survived. We fought the dictators and survived. We’ll survive the cartels.” I was completely ignorant of these people; I am no longer.

Several strong performances inhabit Birds of Passage. José Acosta’s morally conflicted Rapayet is a suitable addition to the pantheon of movie anti-heroes and the arbitrary cruelty of Greider Meza’s Leonídas produces a memorably terrifying villain

Carmiña Martínez as the Wayúu matriarch, Úrsula, dominates her scenes as her character dominates her people. Although she’s fiercely loyal to her family, Úrsula’s obsession with her duties as guardian of her tribe’s primordial customs results in a number of Birds’ most poignant scenes.

It’s the overall strength of the ensemble cast, however, not individual performances, that carries this movie. The majority of the characters are portrayed by non-professionals who lend a true authenticity to the production. The smattering of professional actors and actresses would be almost totally unknown to American audiences. Not because they’re not accomplished performers, but because we’re Americans and we’re unfamiliar with anyone not named Meryl or Leonardo.

The story in Birds of Passage is simultaneously arbitrary and inevitable. Random violence builds upon itself until what feels like the inevitable conclusion. I searched for the one act that had it not happened these people may have been saved from their fate.

But, maybe the South American drug trade was inevitable. If not the Wayúu, maybe the Achagua or the Muzo; if not Úrsula, maybe Zaida; if not Rapayet, probably Moisés, maybe inevitably Moisés.

I don’t know. Predestination is a little Calvinist for my taste.

Lastly, be forewarned, Birds of Passage is presented in five chapters, or “Songs.” Let each play out in its own time at its own pace. Don’t get antsy waiting for the next one. It will come … inevitably.

Ed says Four out of Five Stars * * * *

Currently playing at Landmark Keystone Arts Cinema

Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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