Film Review: Birds of Passage (2018), dirs. Ciro Guerra & Christina Gallego
The stunning opening scene of a man wearing only a loincloth and holding a hat performing an intensely ritualized dance with a beautiful young woman with henna decorating her face and body. She wears a flowing scarlet dress and billowing mantel which suggests the mating dance of cranes. I was hooked from that moment and stayed in the thrall of this epic tale which takes place among the indigenous Wayuu tribal people of northern Colombia. Their dramatic landscape consists of lush mountainous jungle and austere white arid flat plains. All of this is rendered with exquisite wide angle gorgeousness by David Gallego, the director’s brother.
The dance is, in fact, a form of mating dance. It is a tradition whereby marriageable woman is released from her confinement, which began with her first period, and is allowed to choose a husband. Zaida (Natalia Reyes) is a big catch for any man as she is the daughter of Ursula (Carmiña Martinez), the tribal elder of the influential Pushaina clan. The man she has chosen and who wants her badly, Rapayet (José Acosta), is handsome but poor and comes from a family that Ursula does not approve of on account of the fact that they have done business with alijunas (foreigners), a practice looked upon with suspicion by the traditional tribal people. So the pressure is heavy on Rapayet to raise the very high dowry which Ursula has demanded for her daughter’s hand. It is this mission from whence the rest of the story springs.
When Rapayet realizes the futility of ever raising enough cash from hauling coffee beens, he hits on a plan after some Peace Corps volunteers ask if he knows where they can procure some marijuana. He has an uncle, Aníbale, who grows it on part of his farm. Rapayet convinces Aníbale to sell to him which quickly nets him the amount he needs for the dowry. With his mission accomplished and his bride acquired, the story could have ended here. But this is where things get complicated and Shakespearean. His best friend and partner in the initial crime, Moisés (Jhon Narváez), a loose-cannon alijuna, emboldened by the relatively easy cash and not constrained by any tribal affiliation to impose codes of honorable behavior, finds other outlets for the marijuana and encourages Rapayet to do some more deals. Soon they have a thriving business and they are all getting very rich. This is prior to the rise of cartels, but it can be read as a prelude to the viciousness of that current behavior today
The extreme juxtapositions of the new found wealth in such an isolated and primitive society provide many opportunities for the traditions to be challenged. In the approximately 20 years which the film covers (1960’s to 1980’s) we see this evolution and erosion as certain practices are dropped or morph into more liberal ones. Zaida, who had been one who received dreams and visions believed to be prophetic, ceases to dream. Her dreams had often included bird avatars, which appear in some of the more beautiful surrealistic dream sequences. As Rapayet a kingpin living in an absurdly modern mansion with faux antique trappings in the middle of a flat open plain guarded by heavily-armed men in military style uniforms he becomes increasingly isolated. The home sits in solitary splendor within no context whatsoever, a metaphor for how out of sync, his life has become. He begins to have haunting and ominous visions with birds. But there is no tribal wisdom available to interpret them, or perhaps no one is paying attention or believing. The sections are divided into Cantos, the titles of which refer to the loss of soul, the breakdown of traditional values and foreboding for the future.
The tensions which build up to the devastating eradication of nearly everyone as they turn on each other with intractable, lethal revenge based on some primitive tribal traditions. The story begins to resemble more familiar crime family scenarios when ethical traditions corrupted by greed and power lead to death and destruction. In true Shakespearan fashion, the biggest honchos are brought down by their own hubris which has made them vulnerable to small, petty, malicious gnat-like characters with no motivation but destruction. In this case, Rapayet is not a bad man. He is generally kind, does not like violence, is not abusive. But his wealth has brought him power and he reluctantly must do things which are against his better nature, including betraying his buddy, Moisés, who has caused too much harm. There have been underlying tensions from the beginning with Rapayet and Ursula with Ursula representing the status quo and Rapayet, the destabilizing new. The culmination of internal strains within the tribe and outside threats cause things to spiral out of control. Ursula’s unhinged, drunken and dangerous son, Leonidas finishes off the job with psychopathic nonchalance. It is an epic operatic tragedy. Also one of the most enthralling and gorgeous films I have seen in some time.
You can watch a trailer for the film here