You don’t come across too many films from Colombia, but every few years one wriggles its way through the festival circuit and on to an arthouse screen, fingers crossed near you. Any film that survives that Darwinian journey will be robustly fit for purpose. Such is Birds of Passage (original title: Pajaros de verano), which with startling freshness tells a tale of gruelling familiarity.
There tend to be two Colombian subjects that work for distributors: the international drugs trade or, for more rarefied tastes, indigenous tribes. What are the chances of encountering a film that fuses both? Slim, you’d suppose. And yet this narco-ethnographic thriller is inspired, we are advised, by events that took place between 1960 and 1980 in the Guajira region of northern Colombia.
The setting is a sandy wilderness of wind-lashed scrub on the Caribbean coast. A family in the Wayuu tribe takes offers from neighbouring families for an eligible daughter Zaida (Natalia Reyes), who has spent a preparatory year in confinement. In a circular courtship dance she throws her robed arms wide like an avian predator and stalks her retreating suitor. Rapayet (Jose Acosta), a quiet handsome type whose shades and a straw hat hint at contact with the ways of the outside world, wins her only when he adheres to Wayuu custom and meets the family’s demand for cattle, goats and ‘two decorative mules’.
The opening section could be a sober anthropological study of a native culture: it’s got the huts fashioned from sticks, the buttock-baring male pouches and a wailing narrator. Then Rapayet walks into a bar and meets some Peace Corps hippies looking to score some marijuana to smoke. He enlists his smiling black friend Moises (Jhon Narvaez) to help him buy a shipment from Anibal (Juan Bautista Martinez), the head of another Wayuu family who lives deep in the bush and delivers the merch on a caravan of donkeys.
By 1970 they have the police in their pockets, drive a fleet of roadsters and are spearheading the drugs boom, selling to Yanks with light aircraft. ‘Weed is the world’s happiness,’ says Moises, a snake-hipped party animal who luxuriates in his new wealth. ‘Their happiness,’ replies Rapayet, who austerely avoids displaying his good fortune. Then greed and opportunism prompt Moises to shoot a couple of American dealers. Anibal, requiring a forfeit to make good this breach of etiquette, demands that Rapayet execute his sidekick. ‘A true Wayuu,’ he insists, ‘would not hesitate.’
From there it’s a case of ‘hark, what discord follows’, as the ritual thirst for blood turns the film into a savage revenge drama. The screen floods with archetypes who might be from Homer or Hollywood: the unruly younger brother, the controlling matriarch, the ferociously loyal wife. And yet the tropes of noir and the spaghetti western are passed through a magical prism that makes the world of guns, lipstick and vulgar narco-mansions look jaggedly strange. The families communicate via emissaries known as word messengers. Portents are seen in dreams and in fauna. Rapayet’s mother-in-law Ursula (Carmina Martinez) conducts business with Wayuu tradition as her implacable guide. In one scene a body is exhumed so that women can dust and wipe the bones for a cleansing second burial.
Birds of Passage is directed by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego. Their previous film (which only Guerra directed) was the highly regarded Embrace of the Serpent (2015), which macheted into the jungle to tell of the white man’s coming from the indigenous perspective. This time the gringos are walk-ons whose malign influence is felt from afar. When not partying semi-naked on the beach, the hippies hand out leaflets warning against communism. The extreme ideological alternative, fed by American addiction to marijuana, is a capitalism so corrupting it threatens to wipe out tribal culture altogether. This brute mystical film makes much of Guajira’s pitiless desert shoreline and densely green interior, so don’t wait for it to crop up on your television.