Colombia’s star film director Ciro Guerra’s ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ took the Cannes Film Festival by storm in 2015. Three years later and he’s at it again with “Birds of Passage.”
Given the overwhelming barrage of Pablo Escobar and drugs-related documentaries and films of late, one would be forgiven for suffering from narco-fatigue.
Not seeing the stunningly original and beautiful “Brids of a Passage” about the origins of Colombia’s drug trade would be a regrettable mistake.
What is now an illicit industry trafficking cocaine began as the “Bonanza Marimbera,” the trafficking of marijuana in northern Colombia. Ciro Guerra decided to show the history of Colombia’s narcos from the perspective of the indigenous Wayuu people.
Set over two decades between the 1960s and 80s, the film opens with a Wayuu ceremony for Zaida, a young woman who has come of age and of Rapayeat, a young Wayuu man of decent but humble means who hopes to capture Zaida’s heart.
The young woman’s formidable mother, Ursula, makes it clear that a demanding and extensive dowry must be paid for her daughter. Carmina Martinez’s portrayal of the powerful matriarch is as frightening and powerful as any mob boss character from Hollywood.
In a revealing early scene, Martinez’s character tells Rapayaet ‘You know why I’m so respected? Because I’m ready to do anything for my family.’ As the film progresses, we understand just how far she is willing to go.
Struggling to scrape the means together and witnessing the arrival of Western tourists to the northern coast in search of marijuana, Rapayat decides to enter into the drug trade to make just enough to afford her dowry.
Inevitably, once the money starts to roll in, the problems are quick to follow. Forced to choose between his family and culture or his partner and best friend Moises- an alijuna (outsider), we begin to see the consequences and dangers of the drug business which have become tragically all too familiar in Colombian society.
But the drugs business is just one part of this multilayered story. Guerra has masterfully intertwined the Wayuu cultures way of life with their changing environment and society.
What makes the film so compelling are the traditions of the Wayuu which are deeply rooted in a profound respect for family and superstition. Throughout the film we begin to see the effects of the encroaching drug culture on their way of life and the gaps created between the newer and older generations.
The spectacular, arid scenery of northern Colombia takes centre stage and cinematographer David Gallego deserves enormous credit for how accurately the film captures the beauty and vibrancy of the Guajira coast.
This project was co-directed by the film’s producer and Guerra’s wife, Cristina Gallego, which seems wholly appropriate given the position of power that women possess in the film.
Early reviews of the film have compared it with The Godfather and the intertwining of families and generational conflict lead to obvious comparisons. But by telling a story unique to Colombia, Birds of Passage has earned its own rightful place among Colombian cinema and the country’s storied history of drugs.