Avian symbolism permeates Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s follow-up to “Embrace of the Serpent,” the dreamlike fable, mostly shot in black-and-white, that illustrated the effects of colonialism on the indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon. Though shot in blazing color, “Birds of Passage” addresses a similar theme. It’s a “Godfather”-like saga illustrating the destructive impact of the drug trade on the traditional culture of the Wayuu people, a Native American ethnic group that has long inhabited the Guajira peninsula, an arid region that straddles the border between northernmost Colombia and extreme northwestern Venezuela.
The film, which is divided into five chapters or cantos, introduces us to the Wayuu in the 1960s through a festive celebration that marks the coming-of-age of beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes), the daughter of clan matriarch Ursula Pushaina (Carmiña Martinez). The ceremony involves a dance in which the now-marriageable girl and a feathered male—in this case, her younger brother Leonídas (Yanker Díaz)—mimic a birdlike mating ritual. Watching from the surrounding circle is Raphayet (José Acosta), who challenges Zaida to dance with him and then declares his desire to wed her.
Ursula is persuaded by Raphayet’s uncle Peregrino (José Vicente Cotes), who is also the clan’s primary messenger, or carrier of the word, to accept the young man as a prospective son-in-law, but only if he can come up with a substantial dowry of goats, cows and necklaces, which is at present beyond him: his sole source of income is as a minor cog in a delivery system for alcohol and tobacco. But he sees economic opportunity in the demand for marijuana among American Peace Corp workers, and decides to become a player in making locally-grown weed more available to gringos, including directly to dealers who will fly it directly out of the country.
It’s a lucrative plan that wins him Zaida, but it brings problems. He purchases product from a powerful local grower, Anibal (Juan Bautista Martínez), who boasts a large private army and has a daughter whose honor he jealously guards. Raphayet’s long-time buddy and partner Moisés (Jhon Narváez) is an alijuna, or outsider, with a volatile temper and an itchy trigger finger. And Zaida’s brother Leonídas (now played by Greider Meza) is a surly young man simmering over his loss of a leadership position to Raphayet.
This proves a combustible combination, and though Raphayet becomes a major figure in the local drug trade, building a white stone mansion in the middle of nowhere for himself, Zaida and their children, things gradually fall apart. But the reversal is not merely a personal matter; it sets off violent clashes that ultimately bring outsiders from Medellin into the region. More profoundly, it rips apart the clan system that has been the foundation of Wayuu culture, leaving the region’s indigenous traditions in tatters.
The destructive impact of outside “civilization” on peoples that have lived sheltered, isolated existences for centuries is clearly as much the point of “Birds of Passage” as it was of “Embrace of the Serpent.” Unlike that film, however, this one opts for a more conventional narrative form. It still conveys a sense of mystery, presenting Wayuu customs and beliefs without explicit explanation, allowing viewers to work through the oddities on their own through immersion in the culture. At the same time, however, by using the familiar tropes of gangster melodrama it makes the unusual milieu accessible.
The film is exquisitely made, though in a style very different from the misty, luminously monochrome “Serpent.” The widescreen images, this time in color, have been fashioned by cinematographer David Gallego to have extraordinary breadth and scope, emphasizing the landscape’s vastness and aura of otherworldliness. Leonardo Heiblum’s score, which employs instrumentation typical of the locale, adds to the ambience.
The cast combines professionals and amateurs, and Gallego and Guerra manage to blend them skillfully. Most importantly, Martínez is a properly stern figure as Ursula while Acosta exudes quiet determination as Raphayet. Among the supporting cast Narváez and Meza stand out for their intensity and Cots for his understatement.
Big and small screens may be awash in stories about drug lords nowadays, but this film offers a distinctive, compelling take on the “Scarface” formula.