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Birds of Passage

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Feb 8, 2019
'Birds of Passage'
'Birds of Passage'  

Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra helm a lyrical and brutal film about another side of the drug wars. Focusing on a Wayúu family - a clan of Native Americans living on border between Colombia and Venezuela on the Guajira Peninsula - the plot of "Birds of Passage" traces how an inauspicious martial match and the arrival of Americans looking to buy weed (and pay well for it) first lifts the family, then corrodes it, divides it, and destroys it.

The marriage is between Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a daughter of the well-regarded Pushaina family, and Rapayet (José Acosta). Though Rapayet has little to offer, and the dowry is steep - Zaira's father stipulates 30 goats, 20 cows, five necklaces, and two "decorative mules" - the young man is determined to meet the cost. It helps his cause that his uncle, a man named Peregrino (José Vicente Cote) is a kind of ceremonial messenger, a diplomat of sorts who serves as an intermediary between clan leaders and helps keep the peace.

But omens abound that something new and dangerous is on the way, and Zaira's mother, Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), renowned for her ability to interpret dreams and keep counsel with spirits, advises caution. Her words fall on deaf ears, and disaster arrives in the form of a windfall. Hearing that visiting Americans - kids in the Peace Corps - are looking to buy marijuana, Rapavet sees a way to raise the money he needs to pay Zaira's dowry. He and his friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez) combine their resources and start up a little business that soon mushrooms, causing Rapayet to involve his cousins Gabriel (Joaquín Ramón) and Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez), growers who eagerly throw in with this lucrative new kind of trade.

Money, alas, brings strife and conflict; bloodshed follows and grudges are created; even Úrsula, such a reliably wise matriarch, loses her bearings. As the 1970s pass by and 1980 arrives, both families become consumed in a raging war that escalates out of control when one wild young man - Zaira's brother, Leonídas (Greider Meza) - insults and then rapes Aníbal's daughter. The end game involves the arrival of new players in the weed game: Men from Medellín. The rest, as they say, is history.

The film opens with a title card that claims these events are based on real happenings. How closely they might hew to actual events, "Birds of a Passage" is a potent study in how human weakness can bring down not just individuals, but extended families, and even cultures. By keeping the focus on this handful of characters, screenwriters Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal - working from original ideas by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra - tell a larger story that much more effectively. Like a Greek tragedy of old, this contemporary, cautionary tale resounds with universality. Think of this as "Scarface" in the desert, but with a literary bent.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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