A Film a Week - Birds of Passage / Pájaros de verano

With his previous film, The Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra has done a good job of telling the story of an almost extinct tribe, the perils of civilization, colonization and exploitation from a distinctive angle. The film was so masterfully shot and astonishingly beautiful that an average viewer would miss an obvious left-wing, tribal nationalist, anti-civilization attitude constructed around the “noble savage” kind of trope. The film got an Academy Award nomination for foreign language film and had a long and fruitful festival tour, effectively putting the Colombian cinema on the world map.

His new one, Birds of Passage, co-directed with his producer and wife Cristina Gallego, is equally mesmerizing and breathtaking, but in a completely different way. Instead of stark black and white with the shades of grey in the surroundings of the Amazonian rainforest, now we have desert-like landscapes of Guajira peninsula shot in Sergio Leone-like full-blown colourful vistas. Guerra’s traditionalist, romantic point of view is still present, but not the main topic of the film, which makes things a bit more complicated and problematic, morality-wise, since Guerra’s ambition could be an elaborate allegory about the recent Columbian history.

On the plot level, Birds of Passage is a standard issue mobster rise and fall epic, set between late 60’s and early 80’s in somewhat exotic environment of Wayuu tribes that kept their original lifestyle even through the 20th century. Our guy is Rapayet (impressive newcomer José Acosta), a simple man with a somewhat influential uncle living on the outskirts of the tribe, but dreaming to marry the clan matriarch’s daughter Zaida (beautiful Natalia Reyes), which would pull him up in the ranks. However, the matriarch Ursula (Carmina Martinez, scary good in her role) sets the almost impossible dowry for Rapayet to collect. Realizing that coffee trade does not bring that much profit, Rapayet and his “alijuna” (the term for an outsider or a Spanish-speaking foreigner in Wayuu language) Moises (Jhon Narvaez) start dealing with the American hippies working under the cloak of peace corps, but actually seeking for a marijuana connection. Rapayet has some connections within the ranks of his relatives from another clan, which is enough to start the business.

Not just that the dowry is collected swiftly, but also money starts to flood the tribe, corrupting the simple life, not just by imported technology (like cars and arms stashes) and the ridiculously looking houses in the place of former tent settlements, but also leaving consequences on the psyche of the tribesman who are, as we see, not immune to greed. It might be the foreign Moises who fires the first shot, but a lot of trouble and “alijuna” interference is yet to come, leaving the most rational and realistic of the bunch, Rapayet, in the crossfire of interests drawn frivolously from the old tribal traditions and modern greed.

Just like in Embrace of the Serpent, the references to other directors’ works in Birds of Passage are numerous, but not in the way to make the film stale and derivative. Here, instead of Herzog and Apocalypse Now-period Coppola, the spectator might recognize the ultra-violent ending from de Palma’s Scarface, the attention to details at the family gatherings and rituals in the likes of Coppola’s Godfather, while the visual identity owes something to both classical and “Spaghetti” Westerns. There is also a sense of authenticity in depiction of Wayuu way of life, from their clothes to the beliefs and obsessions over birds as omen-bringers.

As the metaphor of the recent Columbian history, the film does not work, since its take is overly simplified, excluding many other factors from the equation, leaving only drugs, money, cartels as a form of corporations and Americans as the reason for the natives demise. That opens the field for criticising the film on its moral grounds: the director’s sympathy is in the state of schizoid division between Rapayet’s down-to-Earth approach and Ursula’s monstrously frivolous interpretation of tradition that is usually based on her initial almost classist dislike of her son in law, with a leaning towards cheering for the tradition for the sake of tradition and blaming everything on money, drugs and “alijunas”. The biggest trouble is that it should not be the main subject of the film, but Guerra and co. make it that way.

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