Review of the Film “Birds of Passage”

This award winning Colombian film, Birds of Passage (2018); 126 minutes; Spanish with English subtitles follows an indigenous family torn apart by a marijuana boom. It combines the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez with the epic sweep of The Godfather and does an extraordinary job of telling a story about how the world changes and about how individual actions and the forces of fate work in concert to bring glory and ruin to a hero and his family.

Colombian director Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent) shares directorial credit with his long-time producer, Cristina Gallego, to tell a tale of “gangsters and spirits”, played out against the arresting backdrop of the La Guajira region of northern Colombia. Birds of Passage revisits the birth of the Colombian drug trade as seen through the eyes of an indigenous Wayúu family. The relationship with the Wayúu was a relationship cultivated when the directors worked together on The Wind Journeys and the authenticity and sensitivity of their relationship with the Wayúu is apparent.  Indeed, with the collaboration of the local Wayuu people, Guerra and Gallego ended up using many of them as cast and crew for the film.

Zaida, a young women from Wayuu tribe dressed in red with a tribal design painted on her face in brown.

Zaidafrom Wayuu tribe Passage © Photo courtesy of Quinzaine des Réalisateurs

The movie opens in the Guajira desert, 1968, where a young woman emerges from a traditional rites-of-passage ready to face her future. Actress Natalia Reyes is mesmerising as Zaida, never more so than during the early breathtaking yonna dance in which her blood-red cloak billows behind her like giant wings, ready to take flight. José Acosta is Rapayet, the suitor who asks for Zaida’s hand in marriage but is told that he must provide a substantial dowry, something he has no means to do.

However, like his friend Moisés, who’s not of the Wayuu people, Rapayet has developed a relationship with the alijunas, or non-Wayúu people and a chance encounter with Peace Corps Americans offers Rapayet an opportunity to make a quick buck selling marijuana. This lucrative transaction enables Rapayet to fulfil the dowry and claim his bride.

Soon, however, this serendipitous opportunity leads to a fully-fledged export business when Raphayet persuades Aníbal, a patriarch in his own right, to devote more of his fields and manpower to the new cash crop. Aníbal is suspicious of Rapayet’s plan—not least because such trade is considered taboo for the Wayuu people, whose code of traditions bars them from certain worldly activities and imposes elaborate purification rituals, but Aníbal, in the tragedy of the film, pushes these fears aside. Moisés knows a gringo with access to planes and an airstrip and before long a booming business brings untold riches to the community. But then, in true Godfather style, a tale of shady deals, double-crosses and miscalculations becomes a domestic tragedy and a cultural apocalypse. In the high-pressured, high-risk confrontations that enforce agreements and punish betrayals—Rapayet desecrates Wayuu land, dishonors the Wayuu people, and makes his family the target of violent rivals, including Aníbal and his gunmen. Guerra and Gallego plunge the viewer into the reality of the beliefs and practices of the Wayúu, trusting that both their humanity and their distinctiveness will be apparent.

Mention must be made of the sets and cinematography. Angélica Perea’s sets are a vast backdrop of desert and sea, with characters often dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape as if their lives were in the hands of the gods. She uses the sets to both blend and clash the terrifying isolation of the terrain with the products that the unnatural wealth of the drug trade bring to this remote landscape. Cinematographer David Gallego (Cristina’s brother), has a magnificent eye for painting with the natural light of the region. Many shots are like framed photographs, carefully constructed to show the power of family or the power of greed.

The back of a women facing two men in the desert with white sheets over their faces

Scene from Birds of Passage © Photo courtesy of The Orchard

Birds of Passage can be viewed on HBO as part of your membership here.

It is also available on Hulu here.

We really hope you can see this truly stunning movie which should have made it to the Oscars in 2019.

Birds of Passage was selected at International Film Festivals including:

Ariel Awards, Mexico, won Best Latin American Film
International Cinephile Society Awards, won Best Picture not Released in 2018
Havana Film Festival, won Best Film
Los Cabos Intrnational Film Festival, won Best Film
Lima Latin American Film Festival, won Best director
London Film Festival, won Best Film – Honorable Mention
Chicago International Film Festival, won Best Art Direction and Best Cinamatgrapgy, nominee Best Feature
Antalya Golden zorange Film Festival, won Audience Award
Cairo International Film Festival, won International Competition nominee for Best Film