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Birds of Passage is a gangster film. Yet, by being set in a culture unfamiliar to many Western viewers, directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego (Embrace of the Serpent) expand the scope of what movies of the genre can do.
Set in the late 1960s in Northern Columbia, the film follows a family from the indigenous Wayúu people. A young girl, Zaida (Natalia Reyes, star of the upcoming Terminator reboot), has just completed a ritual period of isolation, meaning she is ready for marriage. She is approached by a member of a neighbouring family, Rapayet (Jose Acosta), who asks to be her husband. However, because he has spent time with the alijuna (what the Wayuu refer to as Spanish-speaking Colombians), her family do not trust him. They say he can only marry her if he pays them a seemingly impossible dowry.
In order to do this, he enters into the drug business with his friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez). The pair have a connection with a local marijuana farmer, becoming the go between for the grower and the buyers. The latter are American Peace Corps volunteers in Colombia to combat Communism. Soon Rapayet earns enough to marry Zaida and make their family filthy rich. However, as Moises grows more power-hungry and the clan become overtaken with greed, Wayuu traditions are abandoned.
Based on real events, Birds of Passage is a true gangster epic, hitting all the notes of the genre. Yet, it’s also an ethnographic film about the Wayuu. 30 per cent of its crew were members of the indigenous people in order to assure the authenticity of the drama’s details. This comes across as Birds of Passage feels very lived-in. It eschews expositional dialogue in favour of immersing viewers in the world of its characters.
The film’s interludes, showcasing the lives of the Wayuu people, are equally gripping to the more traditional gangster saga portions. These include a long scene where Zaida and her suitors engage in an aggressive dance to uncover which man is worthy of her affection. There’s also a later moment where a dead man is dug up. This is for his bones to be cleaned to ward off bad spirits. As Rapayet and co grow more ruthless, bodies and rumours of malevolent ghosts begin to pile, in scenes playing into Columbia’s reputation for magical realism.
What’s impressive about Birds of Passage is how the crime-drama narrative and this ethnographic element compliment each other. Despite being often problematic in regards glamorising its lead characters, gangster films are about how the pursuit of wealth obtained through criminality leads to violence that destroys lives, families and communities. In keeping with this, Birds of Passage depicts a people who begin the narrative proud of their traditions and modest living. They then become corrupted by the modern world, one which prides money above all else, leading to their ruin.
Reinforcing this is a hilarious visual gag. Because of their drug money, Rapayet and Zaida upscale from a small hut into a beautiful modernist mansion. The only issue is, it’s located rather pointlessly in the middle of a desert with nothing around it for miles. When it is inevitably destroyed in the final act, Guerra and Gallego eschew sensationalism. Viewers watch it being decimated from afar in a single long-shot. The violence in Birds of Passage is not something to be enjoyed but for viewers to consider and be disturbed by as we only see the bloody aftermath.
Occasionally, Birds of Passage falls foul to gangster genre tropes. Aside from the authoritative figure of Zaida’s mother Ursula (Carmiña Martínez), the movie’s women are often passive figures. They lack agency, with their suffering at the hands of men used to push the plot forward.
Yet, by blending a dominant genre with this story of the Wayuu, Birds of Passage simultaneously reimagines the gangster film while taking it back to its 1920 cautionary ‘crime don’t pay’ tale origins. This results in a beautiful, lyricial movie that art-house and maybe even some mainstream audiences can enjoy.