If Ciro Guerra’s previous film, the sublimely haunting “Embrace of the Serpent,” took some cues from Werner Herzog, his latest – co-directed with Cristina Gallego – feels more like an Alejandro Jodorowsky film, but more ethnographic in nature, during its opening scenes. The film will eventually settle into becoming a familial crime drama, of sorts, but it never quite loses the mysticism of its early sequences.
As the picture opens, a young woman in a desolate stretch of northern Colombia in the late 1960s has just completed a ritual period of isolation and her family is celebrating her emergence, meaning that she is now ready for marriage. The girl, Zaida (Natalie Reyes) takes part in a ritualistic dance and is joined by a young man from a neighboring family named Rapayet (Jose Acosta). However, the overbearing matriarch of Zaida’s Wayuu family, Ursula (Carmina Martinez), insists that Rapayet collect a dowry consisting of numerous goats, cows and necklaces.
To raise the money, Rapayet joins forces with a pal named Moises (Jhon Narvaez) to sell a large amount of marijuana to some gringos seeking it. Before long, Rapayet and Moises have become involved in the drug trade, forcing them to rely upon a relative of Rapayet’s who lives in the mountains, grows marijuana and has some high demands. After Moises makes some bad business decisions, Ursula and the family elders insist that Rapayet get rid of him, and the entire family ultimately becomes embroiled in the drug trade business.
In a more typical movie, this type of story would have been handled as a straightforward crime drama, but Guerra and and Gallego present the story in a variety of ways – as a bloody drug and crime drama, a mysterious and gorgeously shot film about Wayuu traditions and an exploration of Colombian history.
With just two films – “Embrace” and this one – Guerra has distinguished himself as a unique cinematic voice. His films both have somewhat psychedelic auras to them, but they are never aiming to be cult items. The photography in both films is stunning, the stories are told at measured paces, they both have ethnographic elements and the pictures are filled with images that are haunting and surreal.
This is one of the absolute best movies I’ve seen so far in 2019. Told in four chapters that chronicle the rise and fall of two families who are bound together at first by blood, and then by illegal dealings, “Birds of Passage” is a film I’d highly recommend. It provides a fascinating window into a culture that most people likely don’t even know exists.