It’s tempting to think we’ve seen it all when it comes to gangster movies — the Tommy-gunning tough guys, the cosa nostra capos and cutthroats, the tattooed yakuza hard men, the cartel-to-Chinese-triad thug lifers, the coked-out kingpins with their Everest-sized blow piles and ballistic “little friends.” Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s stunning, sumptuous Birds of Passage isn’t out to reinvent the wheel regarding drug-lord narratives, nor is it asking Tony Montana to hold its beer. But what it brings to the party by setting its near-folkloric narco tale within the insular indigenous Wayuu community deep in the hills of North Colombia is more than just genre exotica. Part anthropological study, part rise-and-fall epic and all-out mesmerizing, this regional spin on the “family business” saga makes you rethink the notions behind why we watch crime flicks past the vicarious thrills. It’s both foreign and familiar. It’s a capitalism-is-a-virus cautionary tale. It’s the sort of second-hand trip too close to the sun that reminds you why history repeats itself the minute human nature enters the picture.
We meet Zaida (Natalia Reyes) and Rafayet (José Acosta) during a ritual known as the Yonna dance, an elaborate pas de deux involving flowing red robes, a choreography that mimics bird flight and a need to keep up or bow out. For her, it’s coming-of-age moment; for him, its the first steps of a courtship. But given that she’s the daughter of a prominent family among the tribes and he has only his uncle — one’s who a “word messenger,” a respected role in the community, but still — to vouch for him, Rafayet has to prove he can be a provider. During a trip to move coffee with his friend Moises (Jhon Narváez), they come across some American Peace Corps volunteers who are looking to score some weed. His buddy sees a bunch of hedonistic hippie gringos. Rafayet sees a burgeoning, untapped market. A deal is made. Then the Americans introduce him to an importer/exporter. Soon, our man has a wife, a family, a regular supplier via his Machiavellian cousin (Juan Batista Martinez), an empire. Also: betrayals, assassinations, dealings with trigger-happy loose cannons, reminders about why you never mix the personal and the professional, perma-burnt bridges, bitter enemies, dead bodies.
Before Gallego and Guerra even bring on the ganja business plans and dreams of going global, the co-directors spends time immersing viewers in the Wayuu’s world — the colorful, spellbinding Yonna dance is only the tip of the iceberg. Tradition, along with an inherent mistrust of alijunas (rough translation: outsiders), is what has kept them alive; god forbid you cross Zaida’s mother Ursula (Carmiña Martínez), the head matriarch in charge and keeper of ancient flames. And once wealth, along with greed and free enterprise, enters the picture, the respect “for how we do things,” per Ursula, is one of the first things to go out the window. Even without explanations on the art of dream-talking or why certain necklaces are considered sacred, the film takes great pains to immerse you in this way of life, the importance of family, the significance of their communal gatherings, centuries-old customs and superstitions. All the better, naturally, for showing us how easy it is for all of it to slip away one dope-business double-cross at a time.
In the duo’s previous movie Embrace of the Serpent (2015 — Guerra solo-directed and Gallego produced), the age-old topic of colonialism’s impact on indigenous culture was hashed out in two timelines’ worth of European explorers muddying the Amazonian waters. Here, via five canto chapterheads (“Song 1: Wild Grass, 1968”; “Song 2: The Graves, 1971”) and a 12-year timespan, they take on the corrosive effects of capitalism en extremis. “Remember, say no to communism!” squeak the Sixties longhairs that enable Rafayet and Moises to play let’s-make-a-drug-deal for the first time. But when they say “yes” to the free market, they’re rewarded with wildest-dreams riches in the short term and social instability in the long run. The fact that it’s trickling in from the West — represented here by freewheeling tourists and po-faced transporters — only drives the point home quicker. The gringos provide the destructive infrastructure. The Colombian players themselves are the ones dealing with the blood-feud demises.
All of the above may sound like Birds of Passage is an academic PowerPoint presentation (“Pulowi, Guns and Money: How the Marijuana Trade Wrecked South American Native Culture, 1960-1980 [slide-click noise]”). It isn’t. What Guerra and Gallego give you is indeed an old-fashioned gangster movie, one where you keep your friends close and your enemies closer, where business conducted without honor ends in bullets and drug wars have a way of destroying decades of prosperity. There are tense sit-downs and stand-offs, sieges on jungle compounds and a particularly brutal shoot-out at a narco mansion in the middle of the desert. (A command to “bring in more men from Medellin” immediately ties this carnage to an even bigger criminal enterprise happening in the same country at the same time.) Martínez plays her family-first mother like Don Corleone in a floral robe; Reyes turns the equivalent of a moll role into a study in complicity that Carmela Soprano would recognize; Acosta balances business savvy with a desperate attempt to keep Rafayet’s moral compass from cracking. There’s even a mad-dog character — Zaida’s blond little brother, Leonidas (Grieder Meza) — that has to be put down. Payback trumps everything, even profit margins. Antiheroes or villains, everyone has their reasons.
And the filmmakers give you some truly surreal images, absolutely breathtaking wide shots of landscapes both lush and barren, a sense that you’re voyeuristically peeking into a subculture and a superior exercise in bending a genre to make points without breaking it. Three viewings in, I’m still flabbergasted by the scope and detail of this movie; three viewings from now, I’ll probably continue to be in awe of the way its unique cover version of a crime-doesn’t-pay story totally pays off. “A wild grass that came as a savior, but destroyed like locusts,” sings a balladeer right before the end credits. The line turns the tale into a fable. Birds of Passage treats it all like a widescreen gut-punch of a tragedy.