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15 May 2019updated 14 Sep 2021 2:20pm

Birds of Passage: a dreamlike Colombian thriller

By Ryan Gilbey

Do you wanna yonna? That’s the question at the start of Birds of Passage, as Zaida (Natalia Reyes) emerges from her year in confinement – a tradition for young women of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu people – to greet the world in a red cape that forms wings as it is lifted by the breeze. She’s itching to shake a tailfeather. Well, wouldn’t you be after a year practising needlework in a hut? Whether there is a man who can match her in the yonna, a fierce quick-step that is a mix of dance and pursuit, coming-out ritual and come-on, is another matter. Rapayet (José Acosta), the nephew of the local messenger, has a stab at it, kicking up a dust-storm to the cheers of the crowd, then leaning into Zaida at the end to tell her: “You are my woman.” Zaida’s gravestone-faced mother, Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), doesn’t need to hold up a scorecard with a “1” on it to register her disapproval.

Instead, she sets a dowry beyond the reach of the humble Rapayet, which makes it even more galling when he returns some weeks later with all the livestock and jewellery she had asked for. This he has acquired by selling to US Peace Corps volunteers 50 kilograms of marijuana, which Rapayet bought from his cousin, a farmer, against the man’s better judgement. The Wayuu don’t usually consent to such trade, and they are suspicious of alijuna (outsiders). Rapayet’s friendship with one such outsider, Moncho (Jhon Narváez), has helped facilitate his new commercial venture, but he knows almost immediately that there’s something askew. Sitting on the beach at dusk, the consignment having been handed over to the Americans, he corrects Moncho’s assertion that “weed is the world’s happiness”. Indicating the frolicking hippies, he says: “Their happiness.”

Multi-generational gangster sagas tend not to kick off with a florid courtship dance, but then Birds of Passage, inspired by the history of one real-life Wayuu family that dominated the drugs trade in Colombia from the 1960s to the 1980s, isn’t like anything else. Embrace of the Serpent, the previous film by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, wasn’t like anything else either. That story of an Amazonian expedition traversed the waters of the avant-garde, but the new picture does something arguably bolder: it allows dream imagery and meditative reflection to flood into genre in a way that has rarely happened outside Twin Peaks or Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. A scene in which the clan disinters a relative’s corpse, to see what can be learned from cleaning and handling the bones, epitomises the picture’s own approach – its measured contemplation of grisly material. The Wayuu are not permitted to touch the body of a murder victim (any burial is left to outsiders like Moncho) and the camera keeps a respectful distance, too.

This isn’t just a pretty picture; there’s an ethnographic reason for the movie’s fusion of the bluntly criminal and the hallucinatory. The Wayuu set great store by dreams and portents, so any film about them has to afford those spiritual elements as much weight as the corporeal ones. A sinisterly aloof heron pads around Rapayet’s quarters, as unperturbed as any grizzled New York cop by the bloodshed it encounters there. Another death is followed by the sight of a quivering V of migrating birds sweeping across the desert sky. “Dreams are proof of the existence of the soul,” says one villager. But when the corpses begin accumulating along with the clan’s riches, Úrsula finds that the spirits are shunning her, the dreams drying up. Staring down the barrel of an enemy’s gun, Rapayet doesn’t even flinch. “We’re all dead already,” he points out.

For all its distinctiveness, Birds of Passage relies on some of the same jolts of energy as any gangster movie. The volatility supplied by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Casino is provided here by Moncho and the leering urchin Leonídas (Greider Meza), with his hair the colour of dirty mustard and his poor interpersonal skills. (Like Pesci’s characters, he favours the gun as a social lubricant.) But this is still a film of unshowy and eye-opening surprises, which leads its audience somewhere previously unexplored by cinema: into the dream lives of drug lords. 

Birds of Passage (15)
dirs: Ciro Guerra, Cristina Gallego

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This article appears in the 15 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question