Movie Review – Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage (2018)
Written by Maria Camila Arias & Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, Cristina Gallego, and Ciro Guerra
Directed by Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra

Colombia is a Central American country that has sadly come to be associated with the cocaine industry of the 1980s. Lost in the greed and violence that came out of the black market drug trade were diverse and vibrant cultures. Birds of Passage follows a family of Wayuu, an indigenous people, who get caught up in the first sprouts of that brutal blight that came to Colombia because of wealthier countries’ desire for drugs. While this story takes place on the dusty plains and humid jungles, the core of the tale is something that is timeless and has been popping up in literature for centuries. Birds of Passage is in many ways Shakespearean, a tragedy fueled by greed with no foresight.

Raphayet is a Wayuu man attempting to make a name for himself, inspired by meeting the beautiful Zaida who requires a substantial dowry. He finds money in selling marijuana to white foreigners with his friend Moises. They attract the attention of a big-money buyer and money begins flooding Raphayet’s pockets as well as his uncle’s farm who is growing the cash crop. The injection of this money and the subsequent elevated status is like poison, tainting these people into turning on each other so that they can maintain these positions.

Mixed in with the story of this growing cartel are the visions Zaida has of her long-dead grandmother. As part of her coming of age, she went through a seclusion ritual that awakened her to the spirits. The specter of grandmother warns of a plague, and Zaida’s mother believes that Raphayet will bring nothing but ruin to her family.

The scope of the picture spans from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, and we see this passage of time through the way character’s clothing upgrades from traditional garments to touches of makeup and designer purses being carried. Raphayet and Zaida’s family moves from thatch-roofed huts and end up in a contemporary designer home. Though, they still sleep in hammocks because that is the way they are used to. The creeping corruption of capitalism is apparent on-screen through the mutation of the landscape and transformation of character’s attitudes.

I can’t help but compare Guerra’s previous film, Embrace the Serpent, which is also a film about the interactions of Westerners and native peoples. That film ends up being more vibrant and more complicated because it allows the spirituality of its shaman protagonist to dominate the picture. Birds of Passage is incredibly straightforward and keeps Zaida’s vision as less than a B-plot. They end up foreshadowing some tragedies but are never substantial enough to really mean anything or add to the story. The performances here are stiffer for the most part when putting it up against Embrace the Serpent.

There’s never a single character or arc that stands out as substantially unique. The fates of these characters never feel surprising either. When I say it’s Shakespearean that is because of its focus on family and archetypal tragedy, but also because it feels like master plots with little flourish added. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s not a powerful experience. You won’t be wasting your time watching Birds of Passage, but I suspect you won’t find much reason for a return visit.

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