Skip to main content
A Magazine for

Birds of Passage

491 1559126458

The afterimages of violence circulate through multiple worlds in Birds of Passage, the newest film from the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego. Set amongst the Wayúu indigenous people of Colombia's Guajira Peninsula, the film charts one family's destabilising involvement with the emerging international drug trade of the '60s and '70s.

Rapayet (José Acosta) is of the clan but on its edges, having been raised in the world of the alijunas (outsiders). On returning home he seeks to marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes) by participating in her coming-of-age ritual in a gorgeous sequence that opens the film and powerfully sets its stark tone and sun-blasted palette. Úrsula, the clan's matriarch and Zaida's mother, an effortlessly imperious Carmiña Martínez, demands an exorbitant dowry in livestock and necklaces.

With the help of his chaotic and gregarious alijuna friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez), Rapayet raises the dowry selling marijuana to the Americans that are ostensibly in Colombia to fight communism. The hippyish gringos are shot through Rapayet's eyes as alien, inscrutable interlopers. Acosta embodies lonely uncertainty throughout, even as his character's power grows.

From there, things devolve rapidly. Birds of Passage shows us how the power and violence of modernity infects all the traditions of Wayúu life and its effects are felt as much in the dream world as this one, in sequences presented with a strange, matter-of-fact lucidity that emphasises their connectedness to everyday life.

But the encounter between the modern and the traditional is never simple nor one-way. Úrsula wields tradition like a cudgel when it suits her, but still wears the gold watch Rapayet's money has bought. Like many of the greatest crime films, Birds of Passage draws its true power from tragedy, the only real inevitability here.

Related articles

Reviews in Retrospect: A Beautiful Mind

Ron Howard’s adaptation explores the interface of our inner and outer worlds, and the capacity we have in creating reality from what we value most.

Reviews in Retrospect: Smoke

Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's 1995 indie comedy drama explores the interconnectivity of personal stories and the prospect of recovery through community and connection.