PAJAROS DE VERANO : CIRO GUERRA TAKES THE MOB EPIC TO TRIBAL COLOMBIA
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JORDAN HOFFMAN – The Guardian – 09/05/2018

PAJAROS DE VERANO : CIRO GUERRA TAKES THE MOB EPIC TO TRIBAL COLOMBIA

The director’s follow-up to Embrace of the Serpent is a sprawling tale of drugs, dowries and indigenous traditions.

Ciro Guerra’s 2015 film Embrace of the Serpent is one of the recent success stories of the Director’s Fortnight sidebar at the Cannes. It received worldwide acclaim, did a decent bit of business (over $1m in the US) for a black-and-white foreign-language film with no stars and marked the first Oscar nomination from Colombia. So it is no surprise his latest would be welcomed as this year’s opening film (Cannes 2018).

Birds of Passage is co-directed by Cristina Gallego, who produced Serpent and is given story credit here. In the most reductive way, it is another mafia story. But as with their previous film, it is the specificity that counts, and while certain genre tendencies prevent the narrative from truly unmooring, hardly a scene goes by without something fundamentally familiar being rendered in a unique fashion.

The story begins in the late 1960s, in northern Colombia. This arid, windy area is home to the Wayúu people, and it is the deep sink in their traditions that makes this movie so compelling. The first sequence is a “coming out” day for Zaida (Natalia Reyes) who performs a dance for suitors. Eyeing her is Rapayet (José Acosta) who is on the fringes on the clan. Matriarch Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) isn’t too thrilled with him, but being the nephew of Peregrino the Word Messenger (José Vicente Cotes) carries some weight. If Rapayet can come up with an extravagant dowry – 50 goats, 20 cows and a certain number of ceremonial necklaces with the right kind of stones – Zaida, and access to the inner circle of the family, will be his.

Rapayet stumbles into a plan. While hustling coffee with his Spanish-speaking buddy Moises (Jhon Narváez) they meet some hippie Americans ostensibly in the country with the Peace Corps. When not handing out anti-communist flyers to children, they are looking for a marijuana connection. Rapayet’s cousin Aníbal (Juan Martínez), part of a different clan down in the sierra, happens to grow the “wild grass”.

In just a few short scenes Ursula’s seemingly primitive community is now a profitable ring of drug runners. But with the first automobiles come problems. Rapayet’s buddy Moises is an alijuna, an outsider, and has no respect for Wayúu orthodoxy. His loose-cannon ways lead to bloodshed, from which Rapayet never truly recovers. As fortunes grow, Aníbal gets some alijunas of his own, and then, after a 10-year jump, there’s a young boy poisoned by this ill-gotten wealth whose cruelty creates a conflagration.

Guerra and Gallego wisely don’t get into too much of the production or distribution side of the drug business. Their attention is more on the family. While the ending does get into Scarface territory and the numerous weddings, funerals and other ritualistic gatherings evoke the Godfather saga, the mob classic that most comes to mind is The Sopranos. All Rapayet wants is for everybody to chill; he got into this to make his dowry, why does everyone have to make things so complicated?

Wayúu culture lends itself to some extraordinary visual moments. The women dress in elaborate, brightly patterned dresses. The men wear conventional western shirts (and sunglasses that seem yanked off Steve McQueen) but beneath the waist they often wear ceremonial skirts. Ursula’s compound is a surreal, all-white mansion in the flat desert. Rapayet and Zaida have a king-size bed but sleep in a hammock off to the side.

In addition to necklaces, talismans and doctrinal codes of communication (to be a word messenger seems like a good gig) there a dialogue with the natural world. I’ve never seen a more beautiful flying cricket than the one in this film. As the title would suggest, numerous birds make appearances and even if you don’t quite know what they represent, they are very effective supporting players.

Embrace of the Serpent, in which Amazonian exploration was shown from the indigenous perspective, was a nearly perfect film and a hard act to follow. But similar themes are at play here. If Guerra and Gallego want to continue with this point of view, we should all welcome it.

In theater – Cinema Galeries.
VOSTFR/NL 

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