Birds of Passage (2018)

This powerful if violent narco-drama mediates between centuries-old tradition and outside forces that threaten to tear everyone apart.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Ciro Guerra
2018 | Colombia | Drama | 125 mins | 2.35:1 | Wayuu, Spanish & English
M18 (passed clean) for sexual scene

Cast: Carmiña Martínez, José Acosta, Natalia Reyes
Plot: During the marijuana bonanza, a violent decade that saw the origins of drug trafficking in Colombia, Rapayet and his indigenous family get involved in a war to control the business that ends up destroying their lives and their culture.
Awards: Official Selection – Director’s Fortnight (Cannes); Nom. for Variety Piazza Grande Award (Locarno)
International Sales: Films Boutique
Singapore Distributor: Anticipate Pictures

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Review #1,754

(Reviewed at The Projector)

Spoilers: No

Those who have seen Embrace of the Serpent (2015), and in the process discovered Ciro Guerra, will surely leap for joy at the prospect of seeing his next work, Birds of Passage. Co-directed with Cristina Gallego, Birds is, however, a wholly different film. It is certainly less mysterious and enigmatic a movie, but no less powerful in its meditation—through poetic gestures—on the impact of encroaching modern forces on centuries-old tradition.

It is not just a meditation but also a mediation as the characters try to seek common ground between opposing tensions so that, just maybe, things might turn out well. What makes Birds tick is this palpable sense of unpredictability i.e. how things might turn out, versus inevitability i.e. how things will turn out, which is rendered against a narrative that spans across 20-odd years.

At its heart, Birds can be seen as an origin story about the drug trade and trafficking in Colombia. We follow Rapayet, who is born into an indigenous family, and seeks to marry a young woman of the same ethnicity. In an arresting prologue, we see both performing a kind of dance—she chases with clothes as wings, while he runs backwards—in front of their tightly-knitted community.

The music is fantastic, what with invigorating drums and all, and later on through the film, ethnic woodwind instruments are used to solemn effect. There is brutal consequential violence, as always with movies problematising the capitalistic lure of drugs, but Guerra and Gallego employ it sparingly to powerful effect.

Told in five chapters: ‘Wild Grass’, ‘The Graves’, ‘Prosperity’, ‘The War’ and ‘Limbo’, the film traces the narrative arc of Rapayet and his family as they become consumed by the illegal drug trade, whilst at the same time, internal tensions with another related family may prove to be irreconcilable.

Birds will be familiar to film enthusiasts who know a thing or two about ‘mafia’-type pictures, and to a large extent, the film follows some of these so-called genre tropes. But what sets it apart is not just the beautiful if hostile Colombian setting, but its lyrical take on how these stories, traditions and rituals may one day lose themselves to time—and in the process, rightfully earning its melancholic heft.

Grade: A-



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