Film Review: Drug Wars Get Tribal in the Striking ‘Birds of Passage’

As addictive as the drugs themselves, modern audiences can’t seem to get enough of the drugs cartels in their entertainment. But even with all the documentaries and binge-worthy TV series taking over our screens, we haven’t quite seen a cartel story like “Birds of Passage“, the standout new film from Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallegos. Taking us back to the tribal roots of the booming drug trade, they’ve crafted a fascinating portrayal of a world we’ve rarely seen before.

Set a few years before Pablo Escobar and his cocaine empire changed society forever, “Birds of Passage” takes place in the desert regions of Colombia. We are introduced to a family belonging to the indigenous Wayuu, as they perform rituals surrounding a daughter’s passage into womanhood. Of prime concern is her marriage, with potential suitors expected to offer up a significant dowry. One such match is soon made with a man named Rapayet, but her bride price proves to be a burden. Determined to secure their union, he seizes a fortuitous opportunity one day, when a friend alerts him to rising international demand for marijuana. Investing his last dime, his gamble pays off. But with his new family and wealth comes an even higher price to pay, as the corruption of greed threatens to destroy the entire fabric of his life and that of his people.

Like many similar characters in his position, Rapayet’s subsequent corruption arrives at expectedly violent ends. But what sets “Birds of Passage” apart is the unique spiritual journey it takes to get there. The film’s opening act includes a few dream sequences, interpreted to be portentous signs of danger to come. Depicted with the same graceful direction Guerra displayed in his previous work, these images of ancestral figures within a vast expanse of land add an air of exalted majesty to the film.

This spiritual element is omnipresent throughout the film, but this “Embrace of the Serpent” follow-up isn’t the same audacious head trip as that Amazon-set masterwork. Instead, “Birds of Passage” is decidedly more plot-driven, proceeding with chapters called songs that signify the mounting danger. Screenwriters Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal are the stars this time around, deftly reinventing the usual gangster tropes by weaving in the tribal beliefs inherent to the setting. Indeed, the characters’ actions aren’t only motivated by greed, but perhaps even more so by superstitions and the Wayuu people’s longstanding code of honor. And that tension between tradition and capitalist modernity gives the film a fresh unpredictability.

Indeed, while the cars get bigger and the clothes a little fancier, “Birds of Passage” stays grounded in the sun-dried plains of its pastoral desert environs. Playing out more like a sparse frontier Western than a typically frenetic urbanized crime thriller, it moves at an unhurried yet engrossing pace. Still, it bucks the tradition of both genres in the canny way it integrates women into the plot. In addition to the original demands of the dowry, each major event in the film is influenced by actions taken by or against a woman.

Indeed, the most commanding figure is the matriarchal Úrsula, played by Carmina Martinez with a stoicism to match José Acosta’s as her son Rapayet. Foretelling the impending the demise of her people and their culture, her voice of reason looms large. In its own way, “Birds of Passage” therefore becomes a perfect film for the Times Up era. You can read it as a commentary on the pitfalls of capitalism, but it’s also a cautionary tale on the consequences of disregarding women, whether they be ancestral spirits or the equally wise women right in front of us.

“Birds of Passage” opens in select theaters February 13.

GRADE: (★★★)

Be sure to check out our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where this film ranks among the contenders!

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane is a passionate cinephile and Tomatometer-approved film critic residing in Kingston, Jamaica. When he's not watching or writing about film, he spends much of his time wishing he lived in a big city. Shane is an avid world traveler and loves attending film festivals. He is a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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