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In modern movie terminology, “epic” usually just means long, crowded and grandiose. “Birds of Passage,” Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s follow-up to their astonishing, hallucinatory, Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent,” earns the label in a more honest and rigorous manner. Parts of the story are narrated by a blind singer — a literally Homeric figure — and the story itself upholds Ezra Pound’s definition of the epic as “a poem containing history.” It’s about how the world changes, about how individual actions and the forces of fate work in concert to bring glory and ruin to a hero and his family.
The history in question, divided into five chapters, involves the Colombian drug trade from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, but the film defies narco-drama clichés and superficial period atmosphere. Set among the Wayuu of northern Colombia (an Indigenous population whose language and customs survived the Spanish conquest and the rise of the modern nation-state), it also resists the temptations of exoticism and hazy magic realism. Even as you may be reminded of other sweeping chronicles of fortunes made and souls undone by ambition and greed — “Giant,” “The Godfather,” even “Breaking Bad” — your perception of the world is likely to be permanently altered. The experience made me think of some of my favorite movies (I’ll add Visconti’s “La Terra Trema” to the list), but it’s also like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Not only because of the cultural and geographic milieu, which may be as unfamiliar to many Colombians as it will be to most North American viewers. The landscape the Wayuu inhabit, on a peninsula jutting into the Caribbean, includes patches of desert and lush, green hillsides. Mostly ranchers and farmers, the Wayuu conduct trade and manage potential conflict through a system based on ritualized exchange and communication. A family’s honor is bound up with its word, and certain members, designated “messengers of the word” are treated with special deference. “Don’t shoot the messenger” is close to a sacred principle.
The Colombian film “Birds of Passage,” directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, is an ethnographic thriller—a drama set in rural northern Colombia, centered on one indigenous group, the Wayuu, and based on the true story of a drug war that, from the late nineteen-sixties through the early nineteen-eighties, inflamed the region and engulfed a Wayuu family. It’s a movie involving a wide spectrum of experience, but its elements are nonetheless profoundly integrated. It’s not a thriller with some local color adorning the action or a documentary study with an imposed dramatic structure but, rather, a view of Wayuu life and the built-in fault lines that, in the inevitable contact with the surrounding world, tragically give way.
“Birds of Passage” also has the contours of a classical romance, in which a young couple faces obstacles that are particular to the Wayuu and yet grandly archetypal. The drama begins with the Wayuu ceremony for a woman’s coming of age: Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has spent the customary year of literal confinement, under the tutelage of her mother, Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), mastering handicrafts (weaving, knitting) and emerging before her clan in a public coming out that’s also a courtship ritual. Wearing a billowing cape and head scarf, her face painted, surrounded by a crowd of people defining a stage-like circle for her emergence, Zaida does an onrushing dance in which the young man who chooses to court her, Rapayet (José Acosta), joins her, running and dancing backward as she charges, and deftly showing his physical aplomb, in meeting her step for step and gaze for gaze—and concluding, to the crowd’s admiration, by whispering to Zaida, “You are my woman.”