How do you make a family crime epic original and compelling when the stories have seemingly already been told so definitively by films like The Godfather and TV series like The Sopranos? If you’re Ciro Guerra, the director behind the hypnotic jungle journey Embrace of the Serpent, you take the basic plot and steep it in indigenous traditions and spiritualism, showing your this most storied of cinematic genres through a thrillingly fresh lens. Birds of Passage is at once familiar and alien, from its glorious design to its dry, cracked desert setting that makes northern Colombia looks like another world.
Based loosely on a series of true events that took place between 1960 and 1980, Birds of Passage charts the somewhat accidental transformation that changed the tradition-oriented Wayuu tribe into one of Colombia’s first drug cartels. It all starts innocently enough, lovestruck chancer Rapayet (Jose Acosta) selling his cousin’s marijuana to American hippie expats to pay the expensive dowry for the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes), daughter of tribe matriarch Ursula (Carmina Martinez). After seeing the success of Rapayet’s scheme, his wildcard outsider friend Moises (Jhon Narvaez) and a keen American investor smell opportunity, and it’s not long before mansions are being built and blood is being spilled on formerly sacred ground.
In terms of plot alone, there’s not much to surprise in Birds of Passage. There are family feuds, problems caused by rash younger gang members, and insults and slights that can lead to deadly conflict. Yet, the way in which Guerra and his co-director Cristina Gallego weave Wayuu tradition and spiritualism into the story means that these moments you think you know take on entirely new forms. Tribal and gang necessities lean on and inform one another, crafting an original but entirely consistent internal logic that works to trap all its characters in prisons of their own design.
Wayuu culture of trusting in dreams – the tribe’s wise women ‘talk to the dream’ throughout the film – allows for some mesmerising and disconcerting subconscious sequences. They are loaded with memorable imagery, like train tracks on a beach and ghostly cloth-covered faces, leaving enough of an impact on both the audience and the characters that the existence of a divine guiding hand or at least an undying observer of events remains feasible. Visual magic is afforded to the waking hours too, with sublime costumes and sets. Rapayet’s family compound, isolated deep into the desert, is unforgettable, a surreal mix of harsh angles, bright whites, and airy open space.
The performances are terrific, dark and compelling. Acosta is calm and reserved in the lead, and most of the rest of the cast follow that tone, which makes Narvaez’s lightning bolts of energy all the more impactful when they arrive. He’s a furious being of raw charisma (quite akin to Michael B Jordan in Black Panther), and you can’t take your eyes off him, both for a magnetic presence and the fear that he’s about to blow everything up for everyone.
Shootouts only arrive occasionally, most often happening off screen and leaving the bloody carnage behind. As the ‘80s arrive, so too do the more famous and violent Colombian cartels, and though they are kept physically off screen, the changes they bring about to the drug trade are felt in the desert. As a careful study of a people choosing to end their way of life in favour of material gain, it’s rigorous and informative, and as a symbolism-heavy crime drama, Birds of Passage is gripping and unique, especially as its bleak and merciless story rumbles on without easy moral answers.