Epic drama, not rated, in Wayuu, Spanish, and English with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
Is there a story older than the destructive power of massive acquired wealth? When we were young and had nothing, we were happy! Now we’re rich, and what’s happened to us?
When the gains are ill-gotten, that adds a sordid layer of complication. This remarkable gangster epic from directors Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent) and Cristina Gallego begins in the simplicity of life among the indigenous Wayuu people of northern Colombia. It’s the ’60s, and the Wayuu remain pretty much untainted by the larger culture. Wealth is measured in livestock, courses are charted by dreams and omens, and the Old Ways are honored.
A teenage girl, Zaida (Natalia Reyes), is having a ceremony to celebrate her becoming a woman. It involves a courtship dance called a yonna, in which she swirls around in brightly colored Native costume like an exotic bird of paradise while prospective suitors join in, hoping to claim her.
Raphayet ( José Acosta), a young man who has been away living among the alijuna (the people of the outside world), returns and makes his bid for Zaida. In addition to participating in the dance, his proposal must involve bringing the girl the right sort of offering. Raphayet’s wandering has caused him to lose his sense of what’s appropriate.
“You should have brought a goat,” mutters his uncle Peregrino ( José Vicente Cote), glancing at the necklace he plans to offer, as Zaida’s mother and tribe matriarch Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez) looks on with undisguised distrust.
The full price for the maiden’s hand comes to dozens of cattle and goats, plus jewelry, and the dirt-poor Raphayet must scramble to make the payment. He and his alijuna buddy Moisés ( Jhon Narváez) encounter some American Peace Corps volunteers looking to score some dope. A cousin named Aníbal ( Juan Bautista Martínez) grows marijuana, and soon the lads have all the business they can handle, with planes, guns, and a client list. They bust their humps to keep up with demand, getting rich on what the subtitles call “weed.”
Birds of Passage is packed with tropes of the classic Mafia drama. There are imposing godfathers, ambitious up-and-comers, gun-happy loose cannons, psychotics, and gorgeous molls. There are blood feuds, dead bodies, lines drawn and crossed.
Years pass. In the span of a generation, the Old Ways fall by the wayside. Raphayet and Zaida have grown rich and isolated. They have built a fabulous modern house in the middle of a vast empty wasteland, a situation reminiscent of Rock Hudson’s Reata mansion in Giant. There they sit, surrounded by luxury, guns, and misery, while hot winds drift through empty hallways, and locusts gather in the tall grasses.
The performance that dominates the film belongs to Carmiña Martínez, whose Úrsula is the Don Corleone of the desert. When there are brutal decisions to be made, Úrsula is the one who makes them.
The setting of this classic crime drama in the timeless culture of the Wayuu brings a sharp relief to both traditions. The epic ambitions Gallego and Guerra bring to the table are reinforced by the Homeric framing presence of a blind Wayuu bard who sings a plaintive ballad about it all. “A wild grass that came as a savior, but destroyed like locusts,” he chants tunelessly near the end.