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September 18, 2018

‘Birds of Passage’ Review: A Thrilling and Refreshing Take on the Drug Trade [TIFF]

birds of passage review

We’ve seen plenty of films giving us stories from the South American drug trade from the colonial-style perspective of the white man. Now is the time for Birds of Passage, a filming providing a gripping look at how the burgeoning business of marijuana affected the indigenous tribes of Colombia.

Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s film takes the form of a plaintive remembrance and meditation on past events. Each “song” that structures the narrative of Birds of Passage provides further insight into how the Wayúu tribe moved away from their cosmic purpose and further into a racket of organized crime. If it feels didactic, this tone is purposeful. The form of the film pays tribute to the tradition of tribal elders by connecting the cartel saga to a never-ending struggle to honor the spirits and the land. Birds of Passage is but another compelling episode in the conflict.

Guerra and Gallego begin at a time of simplicity, if not necessarily innocence, among the indigenous Wayúu tribe of Colombia. The film has great respect for their traditions and practices, never stopping to dumb anything down for unfamiliar audiences. At a courtship-style ritual, Rapayet (José Acosta) seeks the hand of Zaida (Natalie Reyes), the daughter of the clan’s matriarchal figure Ursula (Carmiña Martínez). She shoos the suitor away until he can pay her dowry, setting the stage for the resourceful Rapayet to enter the drug business. What starts with helping white tourists procure a little bit of weed eventually leads to a full flourishing of commerce surrounding marijuana.

The lucrative enterprise pays off the dowry and then some, bringing unprecedented wealth and prosperity to the clan. A quick cut by Guerra and Gallego reveals the new opulence replacing the tents in their village, reflecting the rapidity of the transition. With this new influx of money, the Wayúu also sees advancements like leisure time in the form of horse racing. But as Birds of Passage progresses, the price of this prosperity starts to outweigh its benefits. As the film’s cantor intones, this wild grass brings locusts.

The peaceful clan quickly finds itself under siege by warring factions and threatened by the encroaching American presence in the region. (Not to mention, Rapayet must deal with his wild card friend and business partner Moises, who creates problems with his erratic behavior.) It’s here where the stakes that Guerra and Gallego establish so deeply from the start begin to pay dividends. Birds of Passage maintains a greater resonance than the standard issue mafioso tale because it’s rooted in the collective identity of a people.

The directors also never let the violence that ensues from the drug trade become commonplace, shooting all carnage like the deviation from nature’s way that it is. Their shot of a car driving up to the scene of a slaughter and having bodies appear suddenly in the headlights sears the eyes. It’s far from the surrealistic terror of Guerra’s last film, Embrace of the Serpent, but the new register works for him all the same.

By virtue of its song-like structure, Birds of Passage is melodramatic (since that word literally means “music drama”). But nothing about the film’s drama feels artificially heightened. Guerra and Gallego commit to nothing short of chronicling the loss of a people’s connection to their soul, and the fall from grace gives the film an additional sense of tragedy. Even though the filmmakers are prone to moralizing, particularly as the proverbial chickens come home to roost in the final act, the film always proves a captivating watch. It’s a welcome and necessary corrective addition to recent lore about the drug trade.

/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10

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