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'Birds of Passage': The Most Original Narco Thriller Ever

A beautifully filmed magical-realist tragedy directed by Colombia's first Oscar nominee

Rating: Unrated

Run time: 2 hours 5 minutes

Stars: Natalia Reyes, José Acosta, Carmiña Martinez

Directors: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra

Even though it has some of the drug-gang drama and societal analysis that made Traffic and Sicario great, plus a family tragedy like The Godfather’s, Birds of Passage is a completely original crime thriller. A Cannes Film Festival sensation and a critical hit, it’s a loosely fact-inspired tale about the Wayuu, an indigenous group in northern Colombia who stubbornly resisted centuries of Spanish colonialism and Colombian state authority but suffered a more insidious invasion by drug dealers in the 1960s and ’70s. 

Directed by Ciro Guerra, the first Oscar nominee from Colombia (for Embrace of the Serpent), and his ex-wife Cristina Gallego, it’s as ravishingly beautiful as any Oscar movie this year. Its blend of realism and magical dream sequences reminds one of Sergio Leone, Werner Herzog and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose 100 Years of Solitude sprang from his Wayuu roots. Birds of Passage similarly depicts the collision of tradition and modernity. About one-third of the people on set were Wayuu, and they kept everything fascinatingly authentic. Their world — deserts and forests, gorgeous fabrics in unfamiliar patterns, odd rituals and customs — is as exotic as a fantasy film's.

Like The Godfather, it starts with a wedding, or rather an incredibly colorful courtship ceremony. Potential bride Zaida (Natalia Reyes) does a tense, bullfight-like dance with her poor but ambitious suitor Rapayet (José Acosta), as her scarlet dress billows in the wind, like bird wings. Acosta has old-time movie-star gravitas, and in this year’s Terminator reboot, Reyes takes over the lead from Linda Hamilton. 

But there’s a grownup in charge who dominates them: matriarch Úrsula (Carmiña Martinez), who demands a hefty dowry. So when American Peace Corps kids, there to preach anticommunism to the Wayuu, ask Rapayet to find some marijuana, he partners with his small-time drug-dealer cousin. Soon honest, sobersided Rapayet and his impulsive pal Moisés (Jhon Narváez) are awash in cash and toasting capitalism at the wildest parties of anybody’s lives. What could go wrong?

In Wayuu minds, birds are messengers from the spirit world, and the planes that soon carry Rapayet’s weed constitute a winged warning nobody heeds. In Colombian slang, men with guns are also called “birds.” Úrsula, the central authority in the film and the central tragic protagonist, correctly sees that the drug trade is eroding Wayuu traditions in ominous ways — it forces them to betray their culture and participate in that of the alijuna (which means “outsiders who do harm” or “anyone not Wayuu”). Yet Úrsula is also an architect of her family’s disaster. Wayuu rules about honor require her to authorize retaliatory murders when tradition is flouted, making her a de facto narco boss against her best intentions. Her story is not about wicked gringos simply victimizing innocent natives. It’s about how well-meaning people trying to save their families can descend into a moral hellscape, a war of each against all.

Birds of Passage glorifies violence less than any narco movie ever made, and in a way, that makes it scarier. In a just world, it would be up against If Beale Street Could Talk for the cinematography Oscar. It’s like no movie you’ve ever seen — and a must-see.

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