Birds of Passage is stunning, staggering, and extraordinary.
Birds of Passage: a stunning, staggering, and extraordinary feature from Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra.

Whatever you’re expecting from a drug epic set in Colombia in the 1960s and ’70s, Birds of Passage isn’t it. There’s no villainous kingpin along the lines of Pablo Escobar, no seedily unshaven DEA operative, no bacchanalian celebration of massive wealth and mind-numbing white powder. How Birds of Passage plays with and against familiar drug-crime genre tropes are only part of what makes it one of the most fascinating, surprising, and complex movies of the year.

First of all, its characters are Wayúu, members of an indigenous tribe living in Colombia's northern Guajira Peninsula, and most of the dialogue is spoken in their language. The film—told in five parts, or “songs”—opens with a gorgeous portrayal of a traditional Wayúu coming-of-age ceremony, followed by a courtship and wedding, in which Rapayet (José Acosta) marries Zaida (Natalia Reyes), thus joining the esteemed, desert-dwelling clan of Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), a matriarch who recognizes the desperate importance of preserving the Wayúu way of life, and trying to prevent the rest of the world from assaulting it with change.

Secondly, the drug isn’t cocaine—it’s cannabis, and none of the Wayúu have any interest in it recreationally. But Rapayet quickly realizes weed's huge profit potential, becoming the go-between for Aníbal (Juan Bautista), whose family grows the crop up in the lush, green hills, and the Americans, who love the stuff and ship it north. The movie's come under fire from members of the Peace Corps who think Birds of Passage accuses their organization of starting the Colombian drug trade. But this is like complaining that Johnny Fontane was an inaccurate representation of Frank Sinatra. Birds of Passage, while steeped in and informed by real-life elements of history, feels both adjacent to and larger than actual events that might have occurred.

Lastly, the movie isn’t about, say, a good man turning bad, or an Edenic society's corruption by western—or, in this case, Northern—influence. Those tropes are here, sure, but familiar ideas about the inevitable encroachment of money and corruption are juxtaposed with the film’s portrayal of the gorgeous, impassive, occasionally cruel landscapes of northern Columbia, where jungle meets desert and ocean, and the sounds of insects commingles with an unquenchable wind. More than any recent movie I can think of, Birds of Passage, with its keen eye on this particular part of the planet, imbues a sense of a bigger, disinterested world, one where humans aren’t necessarily in charge. The Wayúu may have found a lucrative role in a new, booming, criminal economy, but like the rest of us, they're caught in the greater, more inescapable momentum of time and lost wisdom and decay.

It’s a stunning, staggering, extraordinary movie, told in a cinematic language that has one foot in the familiar and the other in something bold and poetic and new. It’s simultaneously intimate and epic, and it has new things to say about family, violence, guilt, money, tradition, beauty, and loss. And it’s not about America—or, not just about America. It’s not necessarily just about Colombia, either. It’s about something bigger.

Birds of Passage is currently screening at Grand Illusion. Check out more reviews on our Film & TV page.