Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, 2018) – Ithaca Fantastik 2018

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Birds of Passage.

In 1970s La Guaira, Colombia, an indigenous Wayuu family gets swept up in the newly-booming marijuana trade and their lives and traditions are forever fractured when greed and passion overtake their tribe’s honor. Based on the true origins of drug trafficking between the United States and Colombia, filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego resist the lurid glamour of narco-crime cinema and instead present a film alive with ethnographic authenticity and Shakespearean tragedy. Brilliantly colorful and fiercely prideful, Birds of Passage traces the familiar downfall of a criminal empire in an unfamiliar setting.

Disc Features:

  • 4K digital master, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Tension and Revision, a MUBI interview with directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego at Cannes
  • The Word Messengers, new interviews with the cast and crew
  • Behind the scenes footage
  • Trailer
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Jessica Kiang

With their most recent film, director Ciro Guerra and wife Cristina Gallego (once producer, now co-director) pivot strongly away from the monochromatic, twin narratives of their previous film, Embrace of the Serpent (2015), making instead a colourful epic about the rise and fall of a crime family at the inception of Colombia’s drug trade. On its face, it would seem like Guerra and Gallego have stepped into the convention of currently popular narco-sagas but Birds of Passage continues the filmmakers’ interest in their homeland’s indigenous cultures, stripping the typical drug trade film of its romanticized decadence and replacing it with an incisive statement on capitalism’s disrespective challenge to culture and tradition. The overall effect is a kind of remaking of The Godfather or The Sopranos told with the ethnographic voice of the National Geographic Society and the eye of early Terrence Malick.

Birds of Passage‘s prologue opens with a declaration that foreshadows its later tragedies and reveals the germ of greed that will poison its characters and its community. Zaida (Natalia Reyes) completes her yearlong seclusion and readies herself to reveal her new womanhood to the community. She is Wayuu, an indigenous culture inhabiting the arid plains of the Colombia’s northern Guajira Peninsula. Her community’s lifestyle is rigidly codified in its traditions, managing to be both abstemious in personality and vibrantly colourful in its particularized adornments. Her stern but loyal mother Ursula (an imperious Carmiña Martínez) announces the Wayuu’s ethos, “If there’s family, there’s respect. If there’s respect, there’s honor. If there’s honor, there’s the word. If there’s the word, there’s peace.” It sounds admirable, but in fact Ursula recites a checklist of breakdowns Birds of Passage will trace over two hours. Zaida’s hand is pursued by Rapayet (José Acosta), the nephew of the respected “word messenger” Peregrino (José Vicente Cotes). Rapayet is a marginal figure in the Wayuu community who has made his living doing business with the alijuna (or “outsiders”). Zaida’s family has concerns about Rapayet but rather than reject him, they demand an excessive dowry: 30 goats, 20 cows, five traditional necklaces, and 2 decorative mules. The Wayuu are an extremely capitalist culture by nature, although few can foresee the Pandora’s Box that Rapayet will open in the process of making Zaida his wife and their clan prosperous.

Rapayet is able to quickly solve his dowry dilemma with an impromptu business deal with his alijuna partner Moises (Jhon Narváez). The pair take their profits on a coffee deal and reinvest them in a marijuana transaction between American Peace Corps workers and Rapayet’s cousin Aníbal (Juan Martínez) who converts his farming operation in the more southern sierra to the “wild grass.” In a typical drug trade film, Moises would be the star, attending to his growing decadence through flashier cars and clothes, increasingly violent actions, and ever more hedonistic behaviour, however Birds of Passage is not his film and when Moises breaks the Wayuu’s protocols for respectful behaviour and sober business acuity, he quickly departs its narrative in the conventional sense. Guerra and Gallego approach genre from a different perspective, exploring how cutthroat capitalism can tear down even a culture as rigidly strict as the Wayuu and how the conventions of film genre can reflect the stories preserved and mythologized by indigenous Colombian cultures through song.

Birds of Passage is periodically told as a song performed by a shepherd and is lyrically presented in 5 chapters or “songs”: “Wild Grass – 1968,” “The Graves – 1971,” “Prosperity – 1979,” “War – 1980,” and “Limbo.” In doing so, the film transform a true story and a generally realist aesthetic into something epic in scope and sensibility, something that transitions from a historical moment into a cautionary saga warning future generations of Wayuu. A decade of success after Rapayet and Aníbal’s initial marijuana deal finds their communities living in conspicuous wealth. Modest shacks and farmhouses give way to modernist mansions and swimming pools – most notably Rapayet and Zaida’s stark white two-storey residence standing in opposition to the cracked and baked plain, recalling the farmer’s house in Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978). Gold jewellery, Western make-up, handbags, and wristwatches become commonplace, along with hired musicians and free-flowing alcohol. Aníbal acquires alijuna partners of his own, he and Rapayet store guns in graves where once their honoured dead were laid to rest, and Ursula’s son Leonidis (Greyder Meza), having grown up in the marijuana trade’s affluence, becomes a humourless and sociopathic double of Moises. The most distinctive cultural shift marked in Birds of Passage is first an exploitation of Wayuu customs, done by Aníbal to exploit his grievances into monetary gain and by Rapayet to ignore established customs and preserve their mutual peace and prosperity, and then wholesale ignoring those traditions when pride and resentment become too great. Ultimately, when diplomacy ends, war begins, and Birds of Passage reveals this breakdown with tragically Shakespearean poignancy.

Guerra and Gallego describe the Wayuu as accustomed to living in a violent world and viewing it as being one where all can be paid for, making them the perfect culture to become ensnared by the “purest form of capitalism,” the drug trade. The strength of Guerra and Gallego’s ethnographic lens comes in portraying the Wayuu in their fullest complexity, revealing how the Wayuu’s rules can be “unfair and arbitrary” but also effective and binding. Ursula and Peregrino act to preserve “the word” and the order of their culture, finding themselves in conflict with Aníbal’s increasing disrespect to their collective ways and with Rapayet and Zaida’s indulgences in the name of peace and commerce. Still, business proceeds and Ursula enjoys the fruits of their compromises until individual grievances win and the culture has been too hollowed to avoid mutual destruction. For Guerra and Gallego, the risk of disrespect is not found in representing the corruption of these clans, but rather in robbing them of their dynamism even when choices and priorities prove contrary to their own interests.

Birds of Passage‘s fusions of history and realism with folk saga and allegory is further deepened by brief scenes of mysticism found in the reading of omens, the presence of phantoms (found in the loaded appearances of birds and insects), and the depiction of Zaida’s heavily symbolic dreams. MMC! would love to see Guerra and Gallego’s specific brand of cinema wear a wacky “C” and for Colombian films to find representation in the Criterion Collection for the first time. This poster would be a perfect cover treatment of a CC edition of Birds of Passage as it contrasts the blunt material reality of the drug trade represented in the held firearm with the deathly Wayuu omen of a face obscured by a funereal shroud. Birds of Passage might be an unlikely title for release by the Collection as it has already acquired distribution by The Orchard, but with no digital or hard media release yet to be scheduled for the film, MMC! remains, as always, hopeful that Criterion may step in to fill that role.

Credits: Our cover summary is based on the film’s own synopsis and we’ve chosen some pre-existing bonus material, filling it out with an imagined extra feature on the cast and crew. Jessica Kiang of The Playlist was chosen to provide an essay given her ardent endorsement assessment of Birds of Passage.

This post owes debts to reviews by Eric Kohn for IndieWire, Jordan Hoffman and David Hudson for The Guardian, Peter Debruge for Variety, Diana Sanchez for TIFF, Marshall Shaffer for SlashFilm, Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times, Blake Williams of Filmmaker Magazine,  Wendy Ide for Screen Daily, Manuela Lazic for Vague Visages, Fabien Lemercier for Cineuropa, Ben Croll for The Wrap, and Rory O’Connor of The Film Stage, among others.

Big thanks to the 2018 Ithaca Fantastik! This post continues our coverage of the Festival and thanks to a great line-up, we hope you keep coming back for more spine number proposals celebrating IF’s best and most fascinating films.

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