Capitalism’s relentless crushing of all cultures hasn’t left director Ciro Guerra’s mind since his critically acclaimed 2015 film Embrace of the Serpent. With Birds of Passage, he and his wife Cristina Gallego shift from the Amazon to his native Colombia for a story of a family spiraling out of control when tradition clashes with the drug trade emerging in the 1970s. The snowballing chain of events is damning and the character arcs are developed to their furthest dramatic potential, but surreal visual style of Embrace of the Serpent is sadly missing: an epic narrative is impressive but heavy when the images rarely work to elevate it.
When young Zaida (Natalia Reyes) comes out of her one year in isolation, she is finally a woman, according to the Wajuu tradition. It’s 1968 and this Native American tribe remains close to its rituals, so Zaida has to dance with men who challenge her in a beautiful and wordless rhythmic sequence. It also means that if Raphayet (Jose Acosta), the man who comes out of the dance a winner, is to marry Zaida, he has to pay a heavy dot of multiple goats, cows and precious necklaces. But the young and handsome Raphayet is torn between his roots and the possibilities offered by the wider world. The commerce of simple goods with America allows him to survive, but distances him from the rites he was born to honour. Ironically, when the chance to make enough money to cover for the dot presents itself with hippy American tourists looking for marijuana, Raphayet chooses modern values in order to respect a tradition.
Like The Godfather’s Michael Corleone, Raphayet is a stoic, serious man who nonetheless finds himself enmeshed in an increasingly dangerous conflict with another family when easy money leads his business partner to violence. Moises (Jhon Narvaez) is Raphayet’s long time best friend, and his guts are entertaining. They also prove helpful in managing their groundbreaking affairs — until they don’t. Although the first part of the film is slow and fails to present the colours and landscapes around its characters with much artistry, things soon take a violent, absurdist turn and shake out any torpor: hot-blooded Moises bluntly murders some American clients who hadn’t been faithful to Raphayet and him. Completely unexpected, this moment of thoughtless violence surprises also by its honesty. Cinema often dismisses the ease with which guns end lives in reality, preferring instead to delay their use and their power for dramatic effect. Moises’ madness is fully believable, and its clashing with the equally tangible need for Raphayet to keep his commerce clean is when the narrative starts to deliver surprises instead of simply following the basic, classic progression of financial growth under capitalism.
Wealth as defined in the Western world soon leads to the loss of Wajuu values for Raphayet, as well as for his family. Divided in chapters, the film progresses towards the year 1980 in a similar fashion to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. As time goes by, what started as a little exchange of 50kg of marijuana to buy a few goats (for romantic and traditional purposes) turns into a larger and more diverse enterprise, aimed simply at amassing more wealth. Weed remains the only drug traded, but weapons soon become substitutes for cows and necklaces. The drastic changes of clothes for American aviator sunglasses and makeup is startling, and reveals in particular the gradual corruption of the youth by Western values. Leonidas (Gredier Meza), Zaida’s younger brother, grows into an angry teenager, dismissive of his family but also of all values in general: he brings shame to his family when he attacks a young woman he had failed to impress with his grotesque bravado. His attitude, together with his alcoholism, recalls that of Moises and paints a brutal picture of the pernicious influence of America and capitalism, without turning the film into a simplistic caricature.
Through bloodshed, the disappearance of the entire Wajuu tradition (except for one lost girl), without roots or a place in modern society, is appropriately dispiriting and absurd in its scale. A sense of powerlessness is however slightly relieved by a lone street singer’s call to keep telling the story of these lost Native American tribes. Guerra and Gallego may not have reproduced the surreal images from Embrace of the Serpent, but their determination to preserve the history of those who capitalism has destroyed remains as strong and necessary as ever.
Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.