Birds of Passage
Carmina Martinez, Jose Acosta, Natalie Reyes, Jhon Narvaez, Greider Meza, Jose Vicente Cote
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… visually arresting… a haunting tale that will linger in the mind.
In essence, all gangster stories are morality tales. The will to power is always undercut by the corrosive force of greed and, while it is exhilarating on the way up, the gangs always fall into power struggles and end up killing each other. Many of these tropes are there in one form of another in this intriguing film from Colombian filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, but they are given a fresh twist so that the work emerges as a brand-new hybrid.
It is set in a village in Columbia in the 1970s. The protagonist Rapayet (a sympathetic performance from Jose Acosta) wants to marry a local girl, but her guardian Ursula (Carmina Martinez), who enjoys some matriarchal and shamanistic power in the village, opposes the union. The local tribe of the Wayuu people have important traditions to uphold. Rapayet must raise an impossible dowry to gain his prize.
All this coincides with the realisation among the Wayuu that the locally grown marijuana is worth money. A corrupting amount as it turns out. They start by selling a bit to the visiting hippyish American Peace Corps workers but soon they are trekking through the foothills with donkeys laden with sacks of it. From there they go to four-wheel drives, and eventually to light planes. It is easy to see how this escalation could happen (and the film is based partly on fact).
All the while, gangsterism and internecine violence grows inside their community like cancer. Interestingly, the film does not linger on the violence or relish it. Instead, we see sad aftermaths of gangland massacres and reprisals that focus us on the waste of human life.
The filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego have created a visually arresting (it has already won acclaim and prizes). A few years ago, they made the little-seen but superb arthouse pic Embrace of the Serpent. That too was a mesmerising blend of anthropology and mystery. The term magical realism is applied – often lazily – to many cultural products of Latin and South America. Actually, this is slightly different, but it shares a similar storytelling purpose; to make the everyday strange by contrasting the co-existing perceptions of different and parallel life worlds.
The filmmakers use the tension between the tribe’s traditional views and the emerging narco capitalism to ground a recognisably human story. It is a skilful blend and it produces a haunting tale that will linger in the mind.