Birds of Passage (4 stars)

Birds of Passage

Atmospheric Colombian crime drama from Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra

When the unassuming Rapayet (José Acosta) – a member of Colombia's indigenous Wayuu people – dabbles in the sale of marijuana to some visiting Americans in order to raise the considerable dowry for his marriage to Zaida (Natalia Reyes, soon to be seen in Terminator: Dark Fate), he is unaware of the catastrophic events he is setting in motion. Over the course of a decade, from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, the growth of his drug trafficking empire has a devastating impact on his family, and his clan.

As the money rolls in, the family's timber huts in the Guajira desert are replaced by a sprawling villa, their simple jewellery by diamonds and gold. While Zaida's mother Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez) enjoys the fruits of the business, she is also desperate to hold on to Wayuu traditions, to the ancient ways of doing things. This tension between the old world and the new soon spills over into violence; drugs and money draw battle-lines between clans that have co-existed peacefully for years. Centuries of tradition and spiritual belief prove no match for cold, hard greed.

Divided into five chapters, Birds of Passage is, like its predecessor Embrace of the Serpent (directed by Ciro Guerra and produced by Cristina Gallego, who co-direct here), rich in texture and atmosphere. Performances are strong across the board, particularly from the stoic Martínez, and cinematography from David Gallego (Embrace of the Serpent, I Am Not a Witch) is exquisite and evocative. The ruffling of the Wayuu women's loose, vibrant dresses in the desert wind underscores their considerable power in the community; the way the lone white villa stands in contrast to the cracked desert landscape speaks of jarring wealth and cultural isolation.

Indeed, even though it bears witness to the birth of a narcotics industry which decimated Colombian culture, the power of the film lies not in its moments of violence, or even its embracing of seismic themes. Its impact is most strongly felt in intimate, observational moments: Rapayet and Zaida's king-size bed lying empty as they sleep in a hammock strung in a corner of their bedroom; storm clouds gathering about their home; a cloud of locusts hanging on the horizon, beautiful and horrifying in equal measure.

Selected release from Fri 17 May.

Birds of Passage

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • Colombia / Denmark / Mexico
  • 2h 5min
  • Directed by: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra
  • Cast: Natalia Reyes, Carmiña Martínez, José Acosta
  • UK release: 17 October 2018

Rapayet (Acosta) is a member of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu people who becomes a drug lord. Rich in texture and atmosphere, and with strong performances, it’s full of intimate and observational moments as it bears witness to the birth of the narcotics industry which has decimated Colombian culture.