Maximilian Gibson comments on Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s Birds of Passage on the day of its release in UK cinemas and online. A film very different from their Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent, will it receive the same praise and how will Brits interpret this recognisable tale?
Birds of Passage offers at points an engaging exploration of the culture and customs of the Wayuu. The film tells the story of Rapayet, a young Wayuu man who for matters of financial expediency (he needs to get together an astronomical dowry) gets involved in the burgeoning marijuana trade in the late sixties. Inevitably, greed draws him further into a world of criminality and bloodshed which leads him to increasing isolation from his friends, family and heritage.
In some ways the story is unremarkable. The plot owes much to films such a Scarface and the Godfather. Moises, the right-hand man, is a smooth talking party boy reminiscent of Manny from Scarface whom Rapayet is destined to gun down from the moment he is introduced. Rapayet’s uncle, the supplier of the marijuana, serves as a Sosa figure. It seems almost inevitable that a matter of respect will lead to a bloody conflict between the two, and unavoidable that Rapayet’s mansion in the desert, with its achingly eighties decor, will end up in ruins. Scenes set at this location offer some of the film’s most breathtaking shots, a monument to avarice set starkly against a desert wasteland.
The film’s strength lies in the way it presents the Wayuu. It is able to teach the viewer much about Wayuu customs without it ever feeling obvious. It is woven into the very fabric of the film. For starters, the dialogue is 80% in Wayuu, an astounding feat when you consider some of the actors had to learn the language for the film. The decisions and repercussions of every character and their actions are framed by Wayuu attitudes and superstitions. The supernatural is omnipresent, with dreams and spirits influencing the behaviour of many characters. Often, when a particular aspect of Wayuu culture is invoked it comes with an explanation from one of the characters to the others. This allows the viewer to learn without it ever feeling like a lecture.
The filmmaker’s opinion on the importance of tradition is somewhat ambiguous. The downfall of Rapayet and his family seems to stem from an over adherence to tradition. However, the film’s ending would appear to decry the loss of cultural knowledge that has befallen indigenous peoples due to an increasingly globalised economy and society. This is reflected in the detestable matriarch Ursula, Rapayet’s mother in law. She cherry picks aspects of Wayuu custom and belief in order to further her own ends, with disastrous consequences for those around her. One cannot tell if the writer is presenting these traditions as a pernicious force or decrying their bastardisation due to the encroachment of the modern world on their community.
Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano) directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra and distributed by Curzon Artificial Eye, will be released into UK cinemas and available on demand on Friday 17th May.