Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s Birds of Passage features plenty of rumination about the stark contrast between the ways of the old and how modern times have twisted and bent those cultures into an unrecognizable state. That the film chooses to situate this contrast within the framework of a narco-thriller about one family’s rise and jaded fall in the turbulent Colombian drug trade of the 1970’s, it not only magnifies the difference but makes a compelling argument that neither side ever really had control of their destinies in the first place.
This push and pull of morality and honor is best exemplified in one scene where elders of several clans meet in their own open-air, beachside-style Appalachian summit to discuss the bloody war that’s elevated between and within a family. Nothing short of something one would see in any other mob movie, Birds of Passage turns the discussion into a heavy metaphysical one, where dreams are interpreted and the old methods of doing things are resoundingly discussed. It’s just one of the many tantalizing routes in which filmmakers Guerra and Gallegos spin an ordinarily structured crime film into a thinly disguised lament about the erosion of self.
In the beginning, however, it’s hardly spiritual for young Rapayet (Jose Acosta). A simple trip to the beach in 1968 with his friend Moises (Jhon Navarez) sparks his decade-long immersion into the drug trade when a group of hippie Peace Corps kids ask if they can buy marijuana. Sensing a business, and heartily wanting to gather enough money to support a dowry for young Zaida (Natalie Reyes), Rapayet and Moises use another family member to begin growing and moving the drug.
Utilizing a five part structure — with ominous chapter headings, such as Limbo, The Graves and Wild Grass — Birds of Passage moves mysteriously through the next 12 years as Rapayet’s business evolves. Sure, his empire grows with bags of money, private planes and swaths of heavily armed subordinates, but the rottenness of the trade soon infests his own family, as nephew Leonidas (Greider Meza) sets Rapayet down a violent path of feudal bloodshed and retribution.
Filmed with a detached, emotionless style by Guerra and Gallegos, Birds of Passage is tremendous for the way it intuitively tells its story. The violence, even though we sense it coming, is hatched with shrill perfection that still manages to catch the audience off guard. In one scene, the carnage of a bloody assault is revealed only after our first-person vantage point inside a moving vehicle almost runs over the corpses in the middle of the road. And far from being a history lesson, I’m sure there’s something pointed in the way family matriarch Ursula (Carmina Martinez) espouses dignity for the past while nonchalantly pulling the violent strings behind the current curtain.
Anyone familiar with Guerra’s last film, Embrace of the Serpent (2015), will recognize some of the same themes about cultural encroachment and the lyrical images he uses to flesh out his story. Birds of Passage is no less lyrical. It’s also quite damning a portrait of a certain locale during a certain time, in which the weakest are left standing to wander the earth. As the film ends in 1980, ironically when men like Pablo Escobar would inherit the Colombian drug universe, the film seems to answer its own question and evaporates any hope for the older, more honorable ways. The new is here, and it’s here to stay.
Birds of Passage opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, March 1 at the Landmark Magnolia.