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‘Birds of Passage’ Film Review: Haunting Epic Is Not Your Typical Colombian Drug Saga

Set in a pre-Escobar era, this latest from the directors of “Embrace of the Serpent” is gorgeously, hauntingly romantic and tragic

The Guajira peninsula is a complicated landscape filled with deserts, forests, beaches and steppes. It sits in the northern part of Colombia and Venezuela, jutting out towards the Caribbean. The Wayúu people call it home, and in Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s new epic, “Birds of Passage,” the Guajira becomes the stage for a tragic story of one family’s rise to power and fall to ruin.

“Birds of Passage” weaves a tale that is both familiar yet unique, yet it is so culturally tied to the Wayúu, it would be impossible to move it outside the Guajira. The film fits very comfortably in the genres of a gangster movie and an epic, with supernatural forces forewarning what’s to happen in the earthly realm.

Rapayet (José Acosta) is the film’s tragic hero, a man trying to rejoin his people after years working in the world beyond the Wayúu’s region. For many reasons, the Wayúu keep outsiders at arm’s length, and the traditionally minded elders like Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez) do not easily accept Rapayet back into the fold.

With his eyes set on Úrsula’s daughter, Zaida (Natalia Reyes), Rapayet begins an ambitious quest towards earning respect by adhering to traditions, but it is not enough for the princely dowry he must offer for Zaida’s hand. He finds an easy way to make money by selling marijuana to visiting Americans, starting a business deal with the devil that will eventually escalate into violence and death.

Guerra and Gallego, the filmmaking duo behind Colombia’s first Oscar-nominated film, “Embrace of the Serpent,” once again embed their cameras in the heart of an indigenous community, telling a story through a tribal lens. They collaborated with the Wayúu people on the story and to ensure cultural authenticity, creating a movie that doesn’t feel like it’s told from an outsider’s perspective. Rapayet’s many fumbles of Wayúu’s customs allow unfamiliar audiences to learn about how that culture behaves and how it views certain topics. It’s an organic way to lead viewers through the potentially unfamiliar.

The co-directors’ cameras are very much enmeshed in the action as well. In the movie’s eye-popping dance scene, where Rapayet makes known his intentions toward Zaida, the camera smoothly moves along with the couple through their quick-footed routine. The dance looks almost like a chase, with neither partner touching the other. The physical challenge seems to be to keep the right amount of distance and step pattern in time, as turns and change of directions alter the dancers’ course. As the camera captures the intense look on Rapayet and Zaida’s faces, the dirt kicked up by their bare feet, and Zaida’s free-flowing burgundy dress flapping in the wind like a bird’s feathers, the crowd goes out of focus as the couple enters a world of their own. It’s moving in the moment, but it’s also a visual premonition for what’s to come.

There are even deeper visual metaphors throughout “Birds of Passage” that play up the story’s use of magical realism. Like others in the Wayúu tribe, Úrsula is especially sensitive to the interpretation of dreams, a few of which are shown, like the haunting and surrealistic image of armed men with their faces covered by red linens — the Wayúu color of war. Much like the tribe’s revered word messengers, birds are viewed as the bearers of news, and their increased presence near the film’s end are physical stand-ins for the many signs Rapayet has ignored.

The rich cinematography by David Gallego (“I Am Not a Witch”) enhances these moments with shocking vibrancy. Against the harsh backdrop of the peninsula’s desert, everything from the characters to their bright clothes to how they’re positioned in the frame appears more pronounced. During a sacred ritual to rebury a relative’s bones, the women wear black and white clothing for mourning, and against the desert’s ivory sands, the scene looks almost breathtakingly monochromatic.

“Birds of Passage” is a different look at what many outsiders think of when they read or hear about a Colombian drug war. Since the movie is set in the decades before Pablo Escobar’s prime in the ’80s, it lacks the kind of narco sheen western audiences have flocked to, but “Birds of Passage” is very much an analogy for that era, the lives it took and the shame it’s left behind for the survivors. Instead of glamorizing its hero, the movie paints him a tragic figure. Rapayet’s saga is not merely his own, but also that of his family and community at large. He innocently stumbles into the profession with good intentions but discovers that there is a price to pay for respect.