“Birds of Passage”, which was selected as Colombia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last year, is a compelling mix of crime drama and anthropological interest. While it is another drug crime story set in a South American background, the movie distinguishes itself via its distinctive cultural/ethnic elements, and it gives a number of striking moments to remember as calmly observing the rise and fall of one indigenous clan in the northern part of Colombia during the 1960-80s.
At the beginning, the movie opens with a tribal ceremony celebrating the adulthood of a beautiful young woman named Zaida (Natalia Reyes). After being blessed by her mother Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), Zaida begins to dance on the ground while surrounded by many others, and that is how she comes across a young man named Rapayet (José Acosta), who dances well along with her in front of others and subsequently asks for the permission to marry her from Zaida’s father, who is incidentally the chief of her clan. While Zaida’s father has no problem with his daughter getting married to Rapayet, he demands Rapayet a considerable amount of assets as the dowry for his daughter, and Rapayet is determined to pay his future father-in-law as much as demanded.
On one day, Rapayet and his colleague/friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez) come across an opportunity to earn lots of money quickly. They happen to learn that a group of American Peace Corps guys are looking for marijuana, and, fortunately for them, Rapayet knows where to get it. A bunch of his distant relatives have illegally grown marijuana in a nearby forest for years, so all Rapayet and Moisés have to do is functioning as a middleman between this clan and those American Peace Corps guys, while, of course, getting some money during this criminal transaction.
Once they succeed with their first trial, Rapayet and Moisés become bolder than before. After meeting an American guy willing to do more business with them, they deliver and sell far more marijuana than before, and it does not take much time for Rapayet to deliver the promised dowry to Zaida’s father, who eventually joins Rapayet’s growing criminal business along with Rapayet’s uncle Peregrino (Jose Vicente Cotes), who has functioned as an adviser/advocate for his nephew.
While clearly discerning what is going on among Rapayet and the other men of their clan, Zaida and her mother have no problem with that because their clan come to enjoy a lot more prosperity than before. Not long after their two children are born, Zaida and her husband eventually move to a big modern house located in the middle of their region, and Rapayet’s business keeps growing with more money and marijuana, though he does not enjoy his power and wealth much unlike Tony Montana.
As many of you have already expected, there is also the price Rapayet has to pay for protecting his criminal family business. When Moisés becomes a serious problem for the business, Rapayet is advised to eliminate Moisés as soon as possible, but, unfortunately, he comes to hesitate to handle this matter, and that results in a lot more blood than expected. He eventually decides to take care of the matter for himself, but then he only finds himself haunted by the consequence of his inevitable action from time to time.
Several years later, things become unstable again thanks to Rapayet’s brother-in-law Leonidas (Greider Meza), who was once an innocent kid but now grows up to be your typical hothead with a streak of meanness. When he takes a sneak peek on the young daughter of Rapayet’s business partner, we can instantly sense a trouble, and then he goes further with his willful rudeness in a way which will probably remind you of that infamous final scene of John Waters’ cult film “Pink Flamingos” (1972).
Rapayet and his close associates try to handle the following problematic situation caused by Leonidas, but the circumstance only becomes worse with more violence and blood between them and their business partner who is now turned into a vengeful opponent. At one point, Úrsula attempts to get the support and help from other clans in the region, but they sternly remind her of what has been lost due to her clan’s criminal business, and she has no choice but to make a humiliating compromise for the survival of her clan, though it later turns out that she will have to sacrifice far more than that as she and her daughter have feared.
While firmly maintaining its dry, austere storytelling approach, the movie dexterously weaves some supernatural elements into the story, and directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, who previously worked together as a producer and a director in Oscar-nominated film “Embrace of the Serpent” (2015), did a superb job of juxtaposing contrasting story elements throughout the film. While the movie has several gut-chilling moments of violence, it also occasionally shines with stark beauty generated from those wide, barren landscapes shown on the screen, and cinematographer David Gallego, who previously worked in “Embrace of the Serpent”, deserves to be commended for these vividly beautiful moments captured well by his camera.
On the whole, “Birds of Passage” may be too dry and slow for some of you, but it will be a rewarding experience if you show some patience, and it is definitely one of more impressive films I watched during this year. Sure, this is basically a familiar stuff, but it comes with specific mood and details to be savored, and I am certainly willing to revisit it someday for appreciating more of its haunting beauty.