Birds of Passage

"Birds of Passage" takes an unexpected look at the Colombian drug trade.

Editor's note: This review has been reposted from February 8.

On the surface, "Birds of Passage" couldn't be more different than co-directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego's previous film, 2016's "Embrace of the Serpent." "Serpent" (directed by Guerra and produced by Gallego) was a lush historical adventure that showed how Western colonialism corrupted the indigenous people of the Amazon. 

"Birds," on the other hand, is a crime drama that shows the origins of the Colombian drug trade. But it's also focused on an indigenous community, and how the greed brought on by the American appetite for drugs ends up destroying the community's traditions.

"Birds of Passage" had its Madison premiere in February as part of the UW-Cinematheque's spring series, and is back for a regular theatrical run at AMC Madison 6.

The year is 1968, and Rayapet (Jose Acosta), a member of the Wayuu tribe, is desperate to impress the family of Zaida (Natalie Reyes), the woman he wants to marry. He hits upon a scheme to get rich, selling marijuana with his friend Moises (Jhon Narvaez) to the American Peace Corps volunteers in the region. 

Right off the bat, Rayapet regrets the idea. "Weed is the world's happiness," Moises insists cheerfully as they watch the baked Americans play on the beach. "Not for us," Rayapet responds, a dark omen for what is to come.

Structured around five songs or "cantos," "Birds of Passage" follows the next 15 years and the rise of Rayapet's crime organization, as he grows in power and influence, selling marijuana by the planeload to his American contacts. The money isn't counted, but weighed.

But with that wealth comes threats, from his partner Moises, from a rival Wayuu family, and from a hot-headed brother-in-law who wants a larger share of the action.

"Birds" follows a familiar arc for anyone who has seen "Narcos" or "Scarface," as tensions escalate into betrayal and violence. But what's fascinating here is how the genre conventions of the crime drama intertwine with the traditions and customs of the Wayuu people, and how Rayapet tries to adhere to the tribal codes while keeping his business afloat. His mother-in-law Ursula (Carmina Martinez) is the power behind the throne, her visions directing Rapayet's decisions.

It's an impossible balance to maintain, and as much violence as we see on screen, the more lasting damage is done to the tribal society. Families turn against each other, abandoning traditions to serve their own self-interest. Once those centuries-old links to the past are severed, they can never be repaired.

With its gorgeous cinematography, alternating between the stark beauty of the Colombian desert and the verdant green of its forest, "Birds of Passage" is a visually arresting film that offers a fresh, tragic perspective on a familiar story.

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