Birds Of Passage

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Opening film in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight: Birds Of Passage by  Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra
"The rituals set in motion at the start, also tune us into the wavelength of portent, so that a heron's feet on a rug or the sound of locusts carry at least as much threat as the site of a loaded gun." | Photo: Cannes Directors’ Fortnight

There's a tragic Shakespearean sweep to this decades-spanning tale of the corrupting influence of drugs in Colombia, which mixes indigenous ethnographic elements with a crime clan saga to gripping effect. Its themes of portents, family honour and the dangers of flouting tradition would be more than at home in anything by the Bard, while its consideration of the way that colonising forces and greed (embodied here by capitalism) can taint and destroy a country's cultural bedrock feels sharply up to date.

The action - which hints at its parable nature by being told in chapters titles as five "songs" - centres on a family from the Wayúu people, who are indigenous to the northernmost part of Colombia. We see the importance of ritual to them from the start, as Zaida (Natalia Reyes), daughter of village matriarch Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez) reaches the end of a year's confinement as part of her own passage into adulthood.

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At a ceremony, shot with an intense energy by co-director Cristina Gallego's brother and cinematographer David Gallego (whose excellent work is also not to be missed in Embrace Of The Serpent and I Am Not A Witch among others), Zaida dances with a young suitor named Raphayet (José Acosta), who is stained by outsiders in the eyes of Úrsula, who believes he fraternises too much with alijunas - the name given to those outside the tribe.

Shackled with the requirements of amassing a sizeable petting zoo for a dowry, including the exotic-sounding request of "two decorative mules", Raphayet has his work cut out of him. That is until he and his friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez), who starts off as a sort of drunken Sancho Panza type before morphing into something unpredictable and dangerous, happen upon a get rich quick scheme, courtesy of American Peace Corps gringos who want to get their hands on grass.

Using the Colombian cannabis boom of the Sixties through to the Eighties as its backdorp, we see how these first casual steps into the drugs trade, which sees Raphayet team up with a fellow Wayúu family, headed by Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez), soon become a slippery slope to friction within the community and out. Although initially it seems as though the Wayúu are happy to bend and flex their traditions to fill their pockets, violence is never far behind and like the Corleone family in The Godfather, Úrsula's clan soon begin to find that honour can fall victim to profit.

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra draw on the ideas of a narco thriller without wallowing in them. We see the aftermath of violence more often than bloody battles, with killings we do see tending towards the more Western-genre scenario of face-to-face encounters. The addition of Úrsula's son Leonidas (Greider Meza), who has "bad seed plot-driver" written all over him from the start - not least in his blond-haired appearance - is the one false note in a cast otherwise rich in characterisation. Its familiar themes are offered more depth by its strong family dynamic, that sees the domestic matriarchal power and ability to "talk to dreams", set against the external male-driven power play and violence outside the home.

The rituals set in motion at the start, also tune us into the wavelength of portent, so that a heron's feet on a rug or the sound of locusts carry at least as much threat as the site of a loaded gun. This feeling of tradition is amplified by Leonardo Heiblum's score, which employs traditional instruments like the Jew's harp, and is carefully wrapped around the ambient sounds of the countryside.

Less about the day-to-day deaths caused by drugs than the way in which they poisoned a state, Birds Of Passage is a lament for what has been lost, not just by a family, but by a country.

Reviewed on: 20 May 2019
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Story of a family who become involved with the drugs trade.
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Director: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra

Writer: Maria Camila Arias, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal

Starring: Carmiña Martínez, José Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narváez, Greider Meza, José Vicente, Juan Bautista Martínez, Miguel Viera, Sergio Coen, Aslenis Márquez, José Naider, Yanker Díaz, Víctor Montero, Joaquín Ramón, Jorge Lascarro

Year: 2018

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Colombia, Denmark


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