October 17, 2019

Winnipeg
8° C, A few clouds

Full Forecast

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

Rites of passage

Colombian drama subverts traditional drug-lord plot

The Orchard</p><p>José Acosta (right) and José Vicente Cote in Birds of Passage.</p></p>

The Orchard

José Acosta (right) and José Vicente Cote in Birds of Passage.

In one way, this Colombian drama follows the familiar arc of the drug-lord saga: a man rises in wealth and power as his emotional and moral foundations give way. Everything he has supposedly done for the people he loves ends up destroying them.

In Birds of Passage (in the Wayuu language and Spanish, with subtitles), the standard narco-mythology is subverted by a fresh context. Citing real-life events from the 1960s to 1980s among the Wayuu Indigenous people of Colombia’s Guajira region, filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego (who previously teamed on the astonishing Embrace of the Serpent) have crafted something specific and epic and wholly unusual.

Rapayet (José Acosta) has been raised partly among the “alijuna” (a term meaning outsiders but also translated as “one who does harm”). Returning to his clan, he sees Zaida (Natalia Reyes) and courts her according to Wayuu ritual.

He makes a fatal decision, however, regarding the dowry negotiated by Ursula (Carmina Martínez), Zaida’s powerful mother. Financing the traditional dowry in a non-traditional way, he and his friend Moises (Jhon Narváez) broker a hefty marijuana sale to some stoners in the American Peace Corps.

In one way, this Colombian drama follows the familiar arc of the drug-lord saga: a man rises in wealth and power as his emotional and moral foundations give way. Everything he has supposedly done for the people he loves ends up destroying them.

In Birds of Passage (in the Wayuu language and Spanish, with subtitles), the standard narco-mythology is subverted by a fresh context. Citing real-life events from the 1960s to 1980s among the Wayuu Indigenous people of Colombia’s Guajira region, filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego (who previously teamed on the astonishing Embrace of the Serpent) have crafted something specific and epic and wholly unusual.

Rapayet (José Acosta) has been raised partly among the "alijuna" (a term meaning outsiders but also translated as "one who does harm"). Returning to his clan, he sees Zaida (Natalia Reyes) and courts her according to Wayuu ritual.

He makes a fatal decision, however, regarding the dowry negotiated by Ursula (Carmina Martínez), Zaida’s powerful mother. Financing the traditional dowry in a non-traditional way, he and his friend Moises (Jhon Narváez) broker a hefty marijuana sale to some stoners in the American Peace Corps.

"Weed is the world’s happiness," the easygoing Moises says. "Their happiness," says the wary Rapayet, glancing at the heedless hippies celebrating their score. It’s significant that the film upends the Hollywood approach, with the Americans remaining hazy figures on the periphery of the story.

A minor transaction gradually builds into a massive criminal enterprise, and we get a sense of that machinery — the bribery, the gun-toting henchmen, the turf wars, the tense standoffs, the planes flying in and out. In an unorthodox story choice, though, the crime-drama stuff is secondary. Notably, scenes of violence — a staple of the genre from Scarface to Narcos — are deliberately downplayed, either seen from a distance or depicted only in their sad and destructive aftermath.

Blond Indian Films</p><p>Rapayet (left) courts Zaida in a traditional Wayuu ritual.</p></p>

Blond Indian Films

Rapayet (left) courts Zaida in a traditional Wayuu ritual.

Gallego and Guerra are more interested in cultural violence, in particular the corrupting effect of the influx of drug money on Rapayet’s family and community. Honour codes, held in place for generations in order to preserve peace, are challenged by the transactional nature of unchecked capitalism.

At one point, atonement for drug-related murder within the clan is reduced to a surcharge per kilogram of marijuana. At another point, in what feels a bit too much like a cheap gangster-film cliché, we see Zaida’s hot-headed wastrel brother violate social taboos with terrible consequences.

As the story heads toward its climax, Rapayet, Zaida and their children are living in an isolated mansion in the middle of the desert, its modernist baroque excess rising to almost surreal levels. In one poignant scene, the camera pans across the couple’s elaborate gilded bedroom set to the simple traditional Wayuu hammock, tucked in the corner, where they actually sleep.

The cast is made up of mostly novice or non-professional actors, with mixed results. Acosta isn’t a compelling presence, though that might be by design, Rapayet coming across as well-intentioned but in some crucial sense weak. Martínez as the family matriarch, on the other hand, embodies a complicated nexus of forces, with Ursula’s instinct to protect her family colliding with her keen-eyed sense of its dissolution. She’s astonishing.

There have been some issues about the film’s accuracy, from historians questioning its portrayal of Indigenous participation in Colombia’s Bonanza Marimbera (or Marijuana Bonanza) of the 1970s to irked defenders of the American Peace Corps. In light of the filmmakers’ decision to preface the film with a statement asserting it is rooted in true events, those objections are valid.

Still, everything after that statement evokes not documentary realism but fable-like storytelling.

With striking cinematography, stately pacing and a formal and distant tone, Birds of Passage has a stark simplicity. The film is structured as a series of cantos, with a framing device suggesting it is a song for the dead, a lament for "a great family that destroyed itself." This is a drug-war tale reduced to an elemental form, one that feels both classical and new.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

By submitting your comment, you agree to abide by our Community Standards and Moderation Policy. These guidelines were revised effective February 27, 2019. Have a question about our comment forum? Check our frequently asked questions.

Advertisement

Advertise With Us