The Movie Waffler Now On Netflix - BIRDS OF PASSAGE | The Movie Waffler


birds of passage review
A Native Colombian community is torn apart by the drugs trade.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra

Starring: Carmiña Martínez, José Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narváez, Greider Meza

birds of passage poster

In the past year we've seen movies like the low budget British drama Sink and Clint Eastwood's The Mule argue the case for legalising drugs as a means of revitalising working class communities. At this point in time, most sensible people, on both sides of the political fence, hold the view that banning drugs is pointless, and that it adversely criminalises socially disadvantaged communities. Personally, I hate drugs, as I've witnessed the negative effects of addiction, but I'm in favour of legalisation as I believe it's better to take the drugs trade out of the hands of criminals. Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra's Birds of Passage, a Colombian drama set at the coal face of the illegal narcotics trade, may give even the staunchest proponents of legalisation pause for thought.

Much like how they say you can never enjoy meat again if you've visited a slaughterhouse and seen how the steak gets to your plate, when you witness the devastation wrought on a Native Colombian Wayuu tribe when a snake in the form of American drug dealers enters their garden of Eden, corrupting their previously innocent ways forever, your next toke may come with a sour aftertaste.

birds of passage review

Divided into five chapters and spanning a period of about a dozen years beginning in the late 1960s, Birds of Passage introduces us to a Wayuu community which has thrived in peace for centuries, maintaining their traditional way of life in the face of increasing globalisation. "We fought off Englishmen and Spaniards," a tribal elder boasts at one point. Unfortunately for them, they show no such resistance when American invaders arrive in the form of a drugs cartel (who it's heavily implied may have CIA connections) wishing to score some of the lucrative marijuana that thrives in the hills of Northern Colombia. An ambitious young Wayuu, Rapayet (José Acosta), sees this as a way of advancing himself and raising the cash to pay for the considerable dowry required for him to wed Zaida (Natalia Reyes), the beautiful young woman whose hand he is determined to win. Along with his unstable friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez), Rapayet begins purchasing marijuana from his uncle and selling it on at a tidy profit to the Americans. Over the following years, the business grows exponentially, injecting unforeseen wealth into the Wayuu community, but at considerable cost.

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In recent years we've seen a slew of movies and TV shows that explore the cross continental drugs trade from a North American perspective, so it's refreshing to get a Latin American take on how this particular sausage is made. In terms of its narrative structure, Birds of Passage follows the format the gangster movie has employed since its 1930s inception, chronicling the rise and fall of a man who becomes materially wealthy beyond his dreams, only to find himself ultimately undone by his greed. In the decades since the likes of Scarface, The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, gangster movies have focussed heavily on the glamour of the lifestyle, becoming superficial in a manner that leaves you ambivalent to the fates of their criminal protagonists. With Birds of Passage, Gallego and Guerra return the gangster movie to its melancholy roots. Their film is very much a tragedy. It's one of the saddest movies I've seen in quite some time.

birds of passage review

Gallego and Guerra immerse us so fully in their film's specific setting that we obtain a familiarity that extends beyond the characters to the landscape itself. Early on, Rapayet sits in an arid patch of land watching a locust forage in the dust. Later, we see the same insect chewing on a stalk of a marijuana plant in a field that's now green and lush with illegal vegetation. When Rapayet visits his uncle initially, we're presented with a wide shot that frames his villa atop an emerald hill, an image of paradise, but in the film's final act, when Rapayet makes a return visit in less pleasant circumstances, the same landscape is spoiled by the presence of a small army of gun-wielding heavies.

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As his wealth grows and his soul crumbles, Rapayet is haunted not just by his conscience but by the Native spirits whose warnings he has ignored. He's visited in dreams by ghosts of the dead, some of whom died at his own hand. Acosta's subtle performance convincingly portrays a protagonist who morphs from a cocky young man with the world at his feet to a broken, tormented figure a mere decade later. Like the young hero of Willy Wonka, Rapayet gets everything he ever wanted, but for Rapayet, there's no living happily ever after.

birds of passage review

Gallego and Guerra refuse to condescend to or patronise their Wayuu protagonists, who may be victims of American capitalism but are ultimately complicit in their own loss of innocence. Perhaps the most interesting figure in the drama is Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), mother of Zaida and community matriarch. When we meet her first she is determined to uphold her people's customs, viewing Rapayet with disdain for his embracing of the ways of the Spanish speakers. Once the money starts rolling in, Úrsula changes her tune, conveniently adjusting her beliefs to excuse her betrayal of the ideals she previously held so fast.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer David Gallego and with a rousingly evocative score by Leonardo Heiblum, Birds of Passage adds a touch of South American magic realism to a gritty crime drama, making it the freshest take on the gangster narrative to arrive in decades. Crime pays, it suggests, but is material wealth worth trading your way of life for?

Birds of Passage is on Netflix UK now.

2019 movie reviews