A rare bird indeed, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Colombian crime epic is like an indigenous The Godfather, revealing the slow and steady destruction of a close-knit native family who gets caught up in the international drug trade in the 1970s. Both ethnographic chronicle and art-house thriller, this superbly crafted, unhurriedly paced feature from the team behind Embrace of the Serpent should see its profile boosted by a premiere in Cannes, where it opened the Directors’ Fortnight.
The title Birds of Passage (Pajaros de verano) has a two-fold meaning here. It evokes the various species of fowl that form the myths of the Native American Wayuu people, who’ve lived for thousands of years in Colombia’s northeast Guajira region — a picturesque strip of flatlands nestled between the jungle and the sea. And it evokes the Cessnas and other light aircraft which, as the story (by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde, from an idea by Gallego) takes off, start landing in the area to receive deliveries of marijuana that will be shipped to the United States, and by doing so will set off a wave of prosperity and bloodshed that will tear the locals apart.
Like the Coppola film, it all begins with a family celebration — in this case the passage to adulthood of Zaida (Natalia Reyes), the daughter of local matriarch Ursula (Carmina Martinez), who rules over her tribe with a mix of superstition and determination. During the ceremony, which the filmmakers capture in a colorful display of dance and music, a young man named Raphayet (Jose Acosta) asks for Zaida’s hand in marriage. In the first of many negotiations, Urusula and Raphayet’s wise uncle, Peregrino (Jose Vicente Cotes), manage to agree upon the dowry. But the amount is too much for the groom — who traffics in liquor and coffee beans — to handle.
After one of their delivery runs, Raphayet and his partner Moises (Jhon Narvaez) come across a band of American hippies who work for the Peace Corps (they freely hand out “Say No to Communism” stickers) but are really looking for cannabis to sell back home. We hardly see them again, and one of the key merits of Birds of Passage is to reveal, with painstaking detail, how the drug trade devastates those people who lie at the very start of the supply chain. It’s like watching the flipside of American Made, following what happens on the ground after Tom Cruise’s plane takes off, or Narcos without too much sensationalism — although Gallego and Guerra also deliver a fair amount of action during the film’s second half, even if much of the carnage takes place off-camera.
Making a deal with an old and powerful cousin, Anibal (Juan Martinez), who runs a huge hemp plantation in middle of the jungle, Raphayet quickly rises from petty merchant to major player in a clan that will exponentially enrich itself over the next decade, moving from thatched huts on the beach to a drug kingpin’s mansion surrounded by a sprawling desert. But the newfound wealth will bring with it a slew of problems — from the trigger-happy Moises to Ursula’s uncontrollable son Leonidas (Gredier Meza), who is very much this film’s Fredo Corleone — that will chip away at the bedrock supporting the family for so many generations.
Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent explored how indigenous cultures were corrupted in the early 20th century as explorers, missionaries and profiteers ventured into native Colombia. Here, he and co-director Gallego (who produced Serpent) tackle similar themes through the prism of a slow-burn crime saga, with a plot that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the mafia movie classics. The drama feels a bit leisurely and distant at times, and the film runs a little long, yet it intelligently and assuredly explores how longstanding traditions can be gradually upended by drugs, money and outside influences.
Working again with DP David Gallego, whose stunning widescreen compositions recall the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, the directors set the story against a vast backdrop of desert and sea, with characters often dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape as if their lives were in the hands of the gods. Indeed, there’s a spiritual side to Birds of Passage that helps it rise above all the gun-slinging violence, with proverbs, dreams and songs commenting the plot as it unfolds, underscoring how much Raphayet and his tribe were doomed the moment they entered the drug trade. As family members begin to take each other out in the final act, it’s as if a plague had been set upon their land: swarms of grasshoppers swoop down and clouds cover the horizon, while whatever remaining threads held these people together slowly but surely unravel.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production companies: Ciudad Lunar, Blond Indian Films, Pimienta Films, Films Boutique, Snowglobe
Cast: Carmina Martinez, Jose Acosta, John Narvaez, Natalia Reyes, Jose Vicente Cotes, Juan Martinez, Greider Meza
Directors: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra
Screenwriters: Maria Camila Arias, Jacques Toulemonde, based on an original idea by Cristina Gallego
Producers: Katrin Pors, Cristina Gallego
Director of photography: David Gallego
Production designer: Angelica Perea
Editor: Miguel Schverdfinger
Composer: Leonardo Heiblum
Sales: Films Boutique
In Wayuu, Spanish