Saturday 11 May 2019

Birds of Passage aka Pájaros de verano (Colombia 2018: Dir Ciro Guerra, Cristina Gallego)

Guerra and Gallego's last film, as director and producer respectively, was 2015's Embrace of the Serpent, a fabulous magic realist search along the Amazon for a healing plant. The luminous black and white of that movie has been replaced by a more vivid colour palette, and Gallego has moved to joint director duties for their latest feature.

Spanning a twelve year period between 1968 and 1980 and with their usual mix of professional and non-professional actors, Birds of Passage tells the apparently true (not quite) rags to (gaudy) riches story of two tribes in northern Colombia, and the impact on their traditions and beliefs as the result of an influx of money. The cause of the sudden wealth growth is drugs - initially entrepreneurially trafficked to satisfy the needs of visiting entitled young Americans, it soon becomes a lucrative industry which brings with it waves of paranoia among the gun wielding distributors.

At the heart of this story is Rapayet (Jose Acosta) who when we first meet him has expressed an interest in marrying Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a girl from the Wayúu tribe. Zaida's mother Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), unimpressed with the proposed match, insists on a hefty dowry of goats, cows and necklaces - presumably to put him off. Rapayet, who has no means of meeting the requirement, happens on a plan to raise cash, when some young Americans visiting the country as part of the Peace Corps look to score some cannabis. Rapayet calls in some favours to supply the drugs, and before you know it, he's the head of a narcotics operation that introduces money - and guns - to the previously relatively poor but stable communities, along with his reckless friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez).

We follow Rapayet and Zaida as their empire grows; the clothes get swankier, and the argent flows freely, while tensions between the families escalate. Respect is increasingly called into question, until the increasingly jittery Moises believes that the people buying the drugs are also dealing with some of their competitors, and so kills them. This leads to a quick escalation of all out war between the tribes, murder being forbidden among their members.

Told in five 'cantos' covering the period of the film, it's the impact of the sudden injection of wealth into the families over nearly a decade that fuels the movie, and the souring of traditional values in pursuit of respect, that has led some critics to offer comparisons to The Godfather. It's an interesting one, and I can see the relevance - both films deal with structured families who struggle to reconcile wealth and prosperity with the ties of kinship - but this movie also recalls Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas in its story of people whose material aspirations outstrip their morality, and who lose the sense of themselves in the pursuit of wealth, while also filtering a Spaghetti Western use of arid landscape, and even elements of Greek tragedy in its storytelling.

The strongest elements of Birds of Passage are those where mysticism meets modernity, with some of Embrace's strong imagery showing through once again. It's unfair to compare both movies, but I found this film's collapsing of time a little forced within its two hours, and the trademark 70s threads as emblems of wealth a little obvious. Guerra and Gallego's latest is well told and often gripping, but it sometimes lacks the finesse and wonder of their previous effort.

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