3 March 2019 | pipecax
"We're already dead," asserts self-confident, before his enemy, the core character from Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra' and first-time Cristina Gallego's feature film, a La Guajira-born good man that was seduced by the temptations of drug trafficking.
"Birds of Passage" affords a very bold look at the brutal Colombian illegal drug trade, disregarding any pre-established reference from well-known productions such as Netflix's TV series "Narcos" or "Loving Pablo" by Fernando León de Aranoa; in lieu, builds a tale of hierarchies, revenge, obsession and justice on this setting, through appealing indigenous characters the story handles under the condition of narrative coherence. Plus, it takes advantage of the Wayuu tribe to unfold events as magnificently shot as told, which allows witnessing a rustic character study instead of another violence-packed drug cartel-set story, necessary ingredients, but subordinated by the surprising turns arising from every new chapter.
It deploys the routinely poisonous gangster film "rise," from challenging poverty to naked greed by means of non-indie devices re-adapted delightfully under a Colombian prism. Keeping alive the reason of his underhand glory (to win the hand of his wife), it's even more enticing to experience the corresponding fall glued to the protagonist, a loss the thickest wad of bills cannot make up for.
Karma, in any of its ways, is lurking from minute one and doesn't take its leave until justice comes up. The first victim: Moisés (John Narváez), a smiley hedonist who, as ever, loses his mind and humility in front of an easy-money job; with it, he throws huge parties, imposes beliefs, wastes in idleness and embarrasses his people. The second is the main character's eldest son, Leonidas (Greider Meza), who, as this inglorious venom enters through his veins, grows in vanity. Rejecting a family rich in values and tradition, he becomes a kind of conceited sociopath; self-esteem and love are absent, therefore he humiliates whoever is around him, via disturbing actions borrowed from "Pink Flamingos" and "Scarface." The third, no need to underline it, is Raphayet, the story's protagonist, a fallen hero, a guilty innocent, another one in the list. Noble and loyal, sincere and honest, silent and shrewd, he achieves the viewer to get involved with his character, even if his conclusion is the most miserable. Each man shares human imperfection, the first two as kind of antagonists, instead, when it comes to the protagonist, a man with desires and sins, it's simply painful to see how tragic fate devours him.
And women, that's a different story. There are only two in this film, and while one gets an unreasonably tough treatment, another one steals the whole show thanks to a standout performance. The first is Zaida, played by Natalia Reyes, a character who, first of all, is represented as a trophy for our hero, and then she adopts the housewife role, it's understood that's because of her Wayuu traditions, where women play a role much more mystical and spiritual, but in times of gender equality, such a proposal is highly debatable. With such severe cultural norms and obligatorily faithful character designs, Reyes' character is a shade of Raphayet, staying at the edge of her possibilities, and that, in a time where a good actress cannot be limited, even with a justifiable reason, is a crime, is unacceptable. Unlike the matriarchal first-time actress Carmiña Martínez, a standout, a powerful herald of upcoming productions that nurture Colombia filmmaking diversity; it's even more exciting to picture her in same-essence roles, but with radically different façades, movies that allows her to keep going strong after this natural powerhouse interpretation. Certainly, it's a tailor-made role, however, it's a pleasure to see how a newcomer takes over the screen with gusto, how a promising actress leads a politically sensitive film from the very first moment.
Screenwriting duo Jacques Toulemonde Vidal and Maria Camila Arias seem to understand well how to set up and how to keep in motion this parable by means of the personalized division into chapters or dream sequences strengthening the storytelling in critical moments. The script has a simple shell that galvanizes the audience for certain periods with unexpectedly disturbing scenes, however, if you're willing to dive in, Guerra can catch you off guard. The emulsion between '80s crime film and the director's personal vision makes it resist to define itself as a piece of art cinema, not only due to its effective twists, but its expertise leaving time to both filmmaking styles. Besides, unpredictability endows the story an irresistible plus, a thrill ride blindfolded; no doubt, a fantastic, hybridized indie boomerang.
Admittedly, violence was unavoidable dealing with three flammable components: drug trafficking, money, and betrayal. Fortunately, the script knows how to handle it with strong underpinnings, it isn't a simple entertainment incentive for moviegoers. Death is meaningful if it represents support for the story to move forward, every shot, every bullet, every blow plays a role and, nowadays, justified film violence is a gift. As a good violence-packed feature film, said scenes are used purposefully and coherently, two non-existent attributes in many indie and mainstream films.
Latin American culture has been frivolously explored by film, thus, it's priceless the way the film develops, drawing together the Colombian indigenous panorama and the most aggressive narrative frenzy in order to encourage audiences to stay in. In addition to the unbending hierarchical structures most of the South America indigenous cultures are based on, the film delivers a pressing commentary through the Wayuu traditions, humanizing those who are currently marginalized by a social system resisting progress.
Cinematographer David Gallego has shown me one exceptional work and other amazingly well-crafted to date: "Embrace of the Serpent" and "Siete Cabezas." One more time, he teams up with the first Colombian filmmaker ever to give his country an Oscar nomination, this time, in an entirely different location. Gallego's cinematography for his two previous productions, especially the first one, must be appreciated because of achieving visually meaningful frames with hints of magnificence is hard work. "Birds of Passage" exacerbated the challenge as, first of all, he would have to live up to dreamlike black-and-white "Serpent" and then honoring a complex culture via eye-catching, stunning pictures. It takes advantage of coming-of-age dances, ceremonies, marriages, funerals, and folklore to let free the most creative authenticity, discreetly dominated by a grateful modesty, no bombastic ambition, on the contrary, every feature, prominently colors, matches in an effervescent way. Gallego delivers some dream pictures in this film, beautifully imposing that seize the screen, purified by glorious naturalness.
Leonardo Heiblum's score is brilliant. Ear-shattering bass drums and folkloric indigenous flutes ahead, the composer captures the sounds of a culture and the story's leitmotif, fusing primitive sounds with delightful compositions that empower all the movie and causing a deeper, sharper effect in the viewer; a composer to keep an eye on.
"Birds of Passage" by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego isn't another take on narcotrafficking, is a violent, occasionally overwhelming parable that deals with such ancestral issues as justice, greed, betrayal and excesses; a vivid, bold portrait of the ghosts of a country that throws cold water on its present yet. Here another strong feature film from duo filmmakers Guerra-Gallego duo that recognizes them as tightly skilled directors and one of the figureheads of their country. This film hits hard in Colombian filmography, dealing with sensitive issues and the sins and name of an indigenous culture that deserves to be known and respected.