Birds of Passage is a new Colombian film from directors Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent) and Cristina Gallego. The film tells the story of a family of Wayúu people that become involved in the early years of the Colombian illegal drug trade. It was submitted by Colombia as their entry to the 91st Academy Awards and made the shortlist, but was not nominated.
This film’s story is super interesting, playing out like a grand crime saga, almost like a Colombian version of The Godfather. The drug trade aspects of the storyline are skimmed over in favor of developing the more interesting family melodrama. This works very well, as the stuff about the drug trade has been done seemingly a million times before. What makes this film stand out is its humanity.
The film does a very good job of creating interesting characters despite their seeming lack of depth. Even though the characters aren’t exactly what you would call rounded, they are interesting nonetheless because of the humanistic lens through which they are portrayed. It would have been easy for the film to depict their native traditions as savage, but the film takes the more interesting and true route by portraying them as real people.
With this, the film is able to present an interesting perspective on the culture at the heart of the film. The filmmakers did not attempt to try to explain the rituals or customs of the society, instead opting to show them simply as aspects of the lives of these people. As such, the audience does not feel like an outsider observing their culture from afar, but rather a participant in the activities as they occur.
The themes which this film explores are quite interesting and thought-provoking, the chief among them being loyalty. Over the course of the film, loyalty is manifested and tested in its different forms: loyalty to one’s family, loyalty to oneself, and perhaps most importantly (as argued by the film), loyalty to one’s roots. It is interesting to look at the film through the psychology of the characters as they face these internally conflicting ideas.
The actors all do an excellent job with their roles. Carmiña Martínez is the absolute standout as the matriarch of the family. Her performance is amazing, nuanced, and filled with emotion. It is a shame that she isn’t getting more love for her turn because she compares favorably to many of the perceived “best” performances of 2018. The rest of the cast is great too, but Martínez steals the show.
Visually, this has to be one of the most beautiful films ever made about the drug trade. Most films in the crime genre take a grittier approach nowadays, but this film feels more like a sprawling epic that tells the tale of the characters in the way they would want it to be remembered. The cinematography and production design are wonderfully detailed. The use of sound is also great, especially the tribal beats that play a big role in the earlier portions of the film.
Overall, Birds of Passage is a truly impressive film. It has an amazing script and phenomenal execution. If you are a lover of film, this is one you will absolutely not want to miss.
Birds of Passage opens in select theaters March 13.