Film Reviews

TIFF Review: ‘Birds of Passage’

An elegy for flocks that lose their ways

Courtesy of TIFF


Birds of Passage
(Colombia/Denmark/Mexico/France, 125 min.)
Dir. Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (Canadian Premiere)

It feels as if we’re in the middle of a new revolution in Latin American cinema. Gone are the days of Cinema Novo and Third Cinema. Argentina has developed a robust commercial filmmaking scene with hits like Wild Tales and 2009’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes. Chile won last year’s Academy Award for Sebastián Lelio’s transgender drama A Fantastic Woman. It could be Colombia’s year at the podium with the explosive drug cartel drama Birds of Passage. The film, which is Colombia’s submission to the Oscars this year, sees Cristina Gallego (who produced and edited Serpent) make her directorial debut alongside Embrace of the Serpent director Ciro Guerra. The pair delivers a sweeping, suspenseful, and visually awesome epic that reinvigorates the cartel genre. It is one of the must-see films of the festival.

This intense and riveting film gives drug wars a tribal spin as Gallego and Guerra transport audiences to the land of the Wayuu clans in northern Colombia. Ambitious entrepreneur Raphayet (José Acosta) finds himself entranced by young Zaida (Natalie Reyes) at her coming out ceremony, but her mother and clan matriarch, Úrsula (played by Carmiña Martínez, who commands the film in a performance of towering and intimidating strength) doubts that Raphayet is husband material. Úrsula’s demand for a hefty dowry inspires Raphayet to partner with his friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez) to deliver a huge score of marijuana for some American hippies eager to bring an airplane full of dope back to the States. Moisés, however, is an alijuna, or outsider descended from the settler generations, and his philosophies prove much different from the Wayuu ways.

Cut to a few years later and Raphayet and Moisés are leading the drug export biz in Colombia. Raphayet finds prosperity in his growing family and rising stature in the clan. Moisés, however, follows the darker temptations of their trade and invests his money in alcohol and guns. Under Úrsula’s disapproving eye, Raphayet tries his best to handle his friend, who is quickly becoming an out of control and volatile alcoholic. Moisés puts the operation at risk.

What’s also at stake is the integrity of the tribe. As Birds of Passage weaves through the five chapters (or “cantos”) of its story, Gallego and Guerra weave a mesmeric web of corruption and devastation. Moisés’ unhinged booze-fueled machismo ignites a tribal war when he kills a gringo on Wayuu territory and dishonours the tribe by spilling blood on their land. This tale doesn’t end well as tribal elders try to reconcile the feud by respecting the traditional codes of honour. Greed and power consume the tribes as violence begets more violence, and the ways of the gringo—bullets and heavy artillery—supersede codes of honour.

A tense musical score by Leonardo Heiblum mixes traditional music with contemporary instrumentation and fuels the greater cultural wars embedded within the cartel drama. A mix of professional and non-professional actors also offers a fine nod to the cultural divides while honouring the community that sees its story told in the fable—and those of countless others implicated in its bloodshed. Gallego and Guerra create an enthralling fable that sees capitalism as the new colonialism. The rise and inevitable fall of the Wayuu is driven by lust for the almighty dollar, yet rolls of Benjamins are alien currency to a tribe that commonly trades goats or beads.

Birds of Passage injects the story of the tribe’s downfall with aspects of folklore and heritage as Indigenous customs and rituals become central to the riveting tense atmosphere. Úrsula’s superstitions pay especially close attention to the birds that fly or wander through the family home, and a viewer’s eye should keenly note every feathered friend or foe that passes by. The birds are symbols of good luck or omens of misfortune, and they drench the film in allegorical authority as Gallego and Guerra offer a violent elegy for flocks that lose their way.

Birds of Passage screens:
-Mon, Sept. 10 at TIFF Lightbox at 9:45 PM
-Tues, Sept. 11 at TIFF Lightbox at 3:30 PM
-Sun, Sept. 16 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 12:15 PM

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Pat Mullen is POV’s Associate Online Editor, etc. He covers film at Cinemablographer.com, and has contributed to The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, BeatRoute, Modern Times Review, and Documentary magazine and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. You can reach him at @cinemablogrpher

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