In his follow-up to the Oscar-nominated EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT, Colombian director Ciro Guerra teams up with director Cristina Gallego to deliver a remarkable feature about the fascinating notion of tradition – both it its prison form and its treasured aspect, as well as the complex structure of tribal life and the layers, levels and classes that exist within the Wayuu ethnic race.
Both a commentary on how money and tradition can be a deadly combo and remain at odds, as well as a critique of the confines of tradition itself and what greed, treason and even racism between ethnic groups, BIRDS OF PASSAGE is a dense, layered and incredibly cinematic work that is the first serious Foreign Language contender to come out of the 71st Cannes Film Festival edition.
The story unfolds as a dangerously ambitious man from the Wayuu ethnic group and the Pushaina clan, Rapayet, hopes to marry Zaida, one of the most elegant, beautiful and noble virgins in the clan. But to be able to pay the dowry, as tradition stipulates, he has to prove he is able to gain wealth and status. And so begins his journey selling weeds to gringos (in the case of the film, it’s American traders and tourists coming to this part of the world looking for the green magic plant).
Told in five chapters that represent a true family saga over a long period of time, BIRDS excels in both deconstructing and reconstructing tradition in fresh, fascinating ways. The pinnacle of tradition here is Urusla, Zaida’s mother, who is more of a culture guardian, holding the talisman and reciting tradition rules and customs, whenever opportunities arise. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Rapayet, a man whose ambition often collides with tradition rather than embrace it.
As every chapter goes by, the war between tradition and human ambition – and rather, greed – is heightened. At first, Guerra and Gallego show traditions at work, especially at a marvelous dancing scene at the beginning of the film where Zaida and Rapayet engage in folk dancing that’s been rarely depicted as beautifully as it is here. As the clan gets more and more immersed in weed trade, their wealth increases and they find themselves at crossroads between their social status, enforced by wealth, gain and greed, and their roots, tradition and culture that puts revenge, pride and honor over material values.
Powered by wonderful performances from Jose Acosta as Rapayet, a scene-stealing, steely performance from Carmina Martinez as Ursula and a magnetic turn by Jhon Narvaez as Moises, Rapayet’s partner and best friend, BIRDS surpasses the pitfalls of cinematic exercises in style to deliver an engrossing cinematic experience.
Ultimately the film is about souls and ghosts – the souls of cultures that are lost by greed, and the ghosts of guilt that loom over the now-wealthy clan. Perhaps the most symbolic element of the narrative is the clan’s belief that some of the dead’s souls wander around the living, looking for a little revenge, or perhaps rather ironically, some validation they never got to experience.
Verdict: Cinematic, immersive, fresh and superbly made – this is an unforgettable film that takes a unique approach to deliver an enthralling cultural and social commentary.