Film Review – Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage tells a familiar tale of the corruptive influence of crime but does it well, with methodical storytelling through time and culture that doesn’t break any new ground but is easy to absorb. The moral of the story is literally told to you by a wandering farmer in the beginning who states that forgetting one’s culture dooms a person. It’s a rather blunt assessment that is not unusual for a morality tale and yet the film actually shows that it may be more that just a simple lesson for why things go wrong for these people, including holding too hard to these beliefs. Yet I am not certain that the film intends to do this, which leaves a bit of an open-ended question as to what this viewing experience means overall.

We start simply in the 1960s in Columbia with a young man, Rapayet (Jose Acosta),wanting to marry Zaida (Natalie Reyes) who has performed her ceremony announcing she is now a full woman, but her mother Ursula (Carmiña Martínez), the dominant figure of the village, demands he propose in the way of their people, the Wayuu tribe. He needs to get money for a dowry so when he and his non-Wayuu friend Moises (Jhon Narváez) find out that some Americans in the Peace Corps want some weed he goes to his older cousin, Anibal (Juan Martinez), who has a major plantation where he grows it. This partnership gives him not only enough for the dowry but results in him becoming a major drug lord selling to the Americans, him having the contacts and his cousin the product.

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From this set-up many things become clear about what will inevitably happen. While Rapayet is the titular lead, he is not really shown as a deep or interesting man, and yet that seems intentional. Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra are showing an overall tale of how the whole family, and by extension the tribe, becomes more embroiled in drugs and the lifestyle it creates. The beats show the way the tribe is changing that where we once saw dancing and tending to the cattle, now we see people wielding guns and talking about visions, not in terms of family connections but to keep them from being killed by rivals and even friends. Despite everything, Rapayet comes across as a decent person who hates violence and resists it at every turn, and yet it is the Wayuu and even more so his own family that pushes him, especially his mother-in-law Ursula.

Ursula at first greatly challenges Rapayet’s even trying to get a dowry for her daughter’s hand seeing that he has a dark shadow on his spirit, yet she is the true villain of the piece in more ways than one. She the representative of the “true” ways of following the culture and living on the land yet is by far the most bloodthirsty, telling Rapayet to take the darker choice at almost every turn. Even worse is the way she has raised her own son Leonidas (Greider Meza), calling him the man of the house when he is way too young to take on that role. He becomes an entitled, dangerous figure that you can tell is going to be a problem at some point so that you even wonder why Rapayet hasn’t just killed him earlier, considering the path he has taken. It is telling that Ursula blames Rapayet for not following her visions when it comes to a decision about Leonidas, yet it is her own decisions that turned Leonidas into a monster to begin with. There is also racism about anyone who isn’t of their tribe that limits some of the decisions that the gang could make in dealing with escalating problems, that was very disturbing in its own right even if no one in the film questions this logic.

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Rapayet claims that the spirits are not looking after them anymore because of their actions. You can see some overlap with not listening to Ursula’s visions leading them in that direction. Yet, if that is the case, the spirits do not care if you are violent as long as you listen to them about how you do it. What becomes clear to me is that someone could watch this film and see variations on this lesson about the dangers of crime and form a very different viewpoint than I did. But overall I am not certain that it was enough to make it a great movie.

This was a mixed experience. While engaging the whole way through, it was never actually compelling. You know when you are going to hit certain plot points of this criminal story and the characters do not have a lot of depth to them, yet because of this the film is allowed to focus on the situation as a whole and pace itself very well, with the growing situation. There are some different aspects on the traditional story that gives it a bit of a new feel but it doesn’t break any new ground. However, it is a solid look at the depths of crime with just enough to keep you going.




Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

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