It's about 30 minutes into Birds of Passage when we first spy a car driving into the small Colombian village where much of the film is set.
It's a jarring sight. Unexpected really.
Before this time, Birds of Passage has felt like it was set in another time and place where tradition was honored, ritual was important and community was everything.
The film opens with with Zaida (Natalia Reyes) participating in a traditional Wayúu ritual, having been appropriately dressed by her chanting mother (Carmiña Martínez) before being presented to her village and to her potential suitor, Rapayet (José Acosta).
This opening scene is simply extraordinary. It enfolds you in Zaida's journey, similar to that of a flight of a bird preparing to soar. Zaida's dance is everything you imagine such a ritual dance would be, yet it's a stark contrast to everything else that unfolds in Birds of Passage, a remarkable film currently in a limited theatrical run with indie distributor The Orchard that unfolds partsly as an intense, dramatic and riveting drug trafficking thriller and even moreso as an expose into how that drug trafficking places a people and their traditions, rituals and ways of life in crisis. It is a film that offers only glimmers of hope amidst its stark realism, part historical journey and part cautionary tale.
Birds of Passage is unforgettable.
Co-directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, Birds of Passage simultaneously celebrates and embraces the Wayúu language, rituals, traditions, and moral codes while also unflinchingly portraying the harsh dissolution of these very things along with the individuals and families that embark on a journey from which they may never return.
It's not long after Zaida's dance that we experience modern culture introducing itself into the Wayúu tribe, not so much by the presence of an automobile, which we learn is not that particularly unusual, but by the introduction into the village of ways of life at conflict with those traditions, rituals, and moral codes they prize so deeply. It begins with Rapayet's attempts to gather the required dowry to obtain Zaida's hand, a price he can't nearly afford as a smalltime goods trader yet it's a price he is determined to meet. When he stumbles across a group of Peace Corps workers hoping to score some marijuana, Rapayet sets in motion, seemingly innocently enough, a plan that will give him what he so desperately wants while also opening the door to a better way of life for those around him including Moises ((Jhon Narváez), Rapayet's longtime friend, and Anibal (Juan Bautista Martínez), and their friends and families.
Yet, what Birds of Passage captures so magnificently is the way in which colonialism and capitalism will penetrate every aspect of life for the Wayúu tribe, or at least the lives of those family members who immerse themselves in the drug trafficking trade. It's an equally brilliant choice, I'd dare say, to have the film, which is based upon true experiences, centered around marijuana rather than the usual cautionary cocaine tale that we see when watching a film such as this one.
Birds of Passage is brilliantly realized, from the naivete of a young man like Rapayet who is seemingly in over his head from the get go, to the fierceness of Ursula, whose maternal spirit and tribal devotion never wavers even as the world around her is dramatically altered. Every person in Birds of Passage matters, a rather Wayúu way of writing as even the screenplay itself enfolds itself into the Wayúu traditions, rituals, and moral codes.
It's masterful writing.
It seems inevitable to acknowledge that the Wayúu way of life will be altered by all that unfolds in Birds of Passage, innocence forever shattered, families broken, and longstanding and seemingly impenetrable tribal devotions disconnected by new ways of living that are, it would seem, incompatible with the ways of the past.
Deeply spiritual, especially in the personas of Ursula and Zaida, yet brutally realistic, Birds of Passage is an extraordinary cinematic journey that will leave you simultaneously awestruck by its beauty yet practically numbed by its authentic violence and brutality.
They are incompatible, it would seem, until they are not.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic