Birds of Passage

 

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A drama about drug dealing quite different from any other film on the subject.

 
Birds of Passage

   

Most unusually, the end credits of Birds of Passage are accompanied by a thunderstorm on the soundtrack, confirmation more potent than any dramatic music could be that what we have just witnessed should be thought of as a tragedy. In terms of the death toll, this Colombian drama directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra is Shakespearean in scale and Kurosawa has proven that even without the original language tragedies by our greatest playwright can have a huge impact in the cinema. I am not sure that Birds of Passage from the team that gave us the acclaimed Embrace of the Serpent (2015) quite reaches that level, but nevertheless it is undoubtedly one of the most striking foreign language films seen so far this year.

 

The tale as introduced by an on-screen storyteller might seem mythical but for the fact that the basic events come from real-life events that occurred between 1960 and 1980. It is set among the Wayuu tribe living in northern Colombia and begins when a suitor, Rapayet (José Acosta), seeks the hand of Zaida (Natalia Reyes) whose mother, Úrsula (Carmiña Martinez), is the formidable matriarch of the clan. On being told as a disincentive that a significant dowry will be required, Rapayet refuses to back off. Instead he suggests to his partner Moises (Jhon Narváez) with whom he sells coffee that they switch to a more profitable trade, that of drug dealing. In this way Rapayet is able to pay the dowry but, now committed to this activity in a big way in collaboration with cousins of his, he sees no reason to stop.

 

Divided into five sections that cover several years, the film, beautifully shot in 'Scope and colour by David Gallego, is a compellingly realistic account of how a man can become hooked by a life of crime and how that can then escalate into a family feud with devastating consequences. The superstitions and beliefs of the Wayuus colour the narrative but mainly in dreams and in the narrative approach (each if the sections is named and is described as a Canto or Song). Consequently, the film is more rooted than Embrace of the Serpent was in a recognisable reality throughout. The result is extremely powerful aided by the good ensemble cast in which appropriately enough Martinez's matriarch is the strongest individual presence. The accumulative disaster that unfolds is entirely convincing, but the storytelling in the later stages is not without moments that are not immediately clear as to what is happening and that reduces, but only slightly, the power of the piece. More significantly, the tragic conclusion failed to move me and in retrospect one realises that it is the storyline that carries this film rather than any deeper characterisations that might have made one feel for the people involved. So it's not quite a flawless masterpiece, but it is a deeply impressive achievement and one that stays in the mind.

 

Original title: Pajaros de Verano.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Carmiña Martinez, José Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narváez, Greider Meza, José Vicente Cote, Juan Bautista Martínez, Yanker Díaz.

 

Dir Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, Pro Katrin Pors and Cristina Gallego, Screenplay Maria Carmila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde, from an idea by Cristina Gallego, Ph David Gallego, Art Dir Angélica Peria, Ed Miguel Schverdfinger, Music Leonardo Heiblum, Costumes Catherine Rodríguez.

 

Ciudad Lunar Productions/Blond Indian Films/Pimiento Films/Films Boutique/Snowglobe Films-Curzon Artificial Eye.
126 mins. Colombia/Denmark/Mexico/Germany/Switzerland. 2018. Rel: 17 May 2019. Cert. 15.