A compelling variation on the narco crime-drama, Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego's lush "Birds of Passage" tells a sprawling tale centered on the South American drug trade and the tragic effects it has on an indigenous family, whose members grow susceptible to its corruptive influences.
Rapayet (José Acosta) is a member of the Wayúu, a native people residing on the Guajira peninsula in northern Colombian. As the film begins, he's attempting to rejoin his community after years spent working in regions beyond their borders. In order to finance the dowry for his would-be bride Zaida (Natalia Reyes), Rapayet and his friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez) get involved in the business of selling marijuana to visiting American youth. Things go well, and naturally the allure of more money and power becomes too much for Rapayet and Moisés to pass up.
Zaida's mother Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), the clan's powerful matriarch, doesn't attempt to hide her suspicions when Rapayet is able to present a substantial dowry so quickly. And her distrust is just the first sign of a growing conflict, as tradition and commerce begin to collide in increasingly deadly ways.
As the narrative moves from the late-60's into the early 80's, we witness a gradual eroding of the Wayúu culture and traditions as Rapayet allows their customs to be consumed by his own greed and self-centered pride. His actions inevitably lead to violence and bloodshed, and as "Birds of Passage" settles into the traditional rise and fall narrative we expect from gangster crime sagas, it's a trajectory that can't help but feel a bit disappointing for a tale that's felt so steeped in authenticity.
But directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego (2015's Oscar-nominated "Embrace of the Serpent") are able to immerse us in unique world of ritual and tradition; like that previous film, they weave in elements of magical realism in unexpected and intriguing ways. Here they offer a fascinating alternative perspective, challenging our view on what we think of when we hear about the Colombian drug war, and an examination of the ravaging effects of colonialism and capitalism on the country's indigenous culture.