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From Cannes: ‘Pájaros de Verano’ (‘Birds of Passage’) Soar Over the Deserts of Columbia

4 STARS—Dir. Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego

José Acosta and Natalia Reyes star in "Birds of Passage" (2018), directed by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, which premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
The Cannes Directors’ Fortnight celebrated its 50th anniversary with a bang—or rather, a bird call—in its opening, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s “Birds of Passage” (“Pájaros de Verano”). The crime thriller chronicles the rise and fall of an indigenous family of the Wayuu people in the ’70s, when “gringos” bring the marijuana industry to Columbia. Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has just become a woman of marriageable age, and Rapayet (José Acosta) sets his eyes on her despite his low status within the group. There’s no way he’ll get the money to provide the required dowry for her—50 goats, 20 cows, and five necklaces made of valuable stone—nor will he gain matriarch Zaida’s mother Ursula’s (Carmiña Martínez) approval without great difficulty. But Rapayet’s uncle Peregrino (José Vicente) is the revered, highly respected word messenger, and he vouches for Rapayet, provided the ambitious young man can issue the dowry. Once Rapayet gets into selling marijuana to Americans, there’s no stopping him from getting what he wants—from Zaida to more money than he could have ever dreamed of. But several foils—Rapayet’s best friend and business partner Moises (Jhon Narvaez), Ursula, and Rapayet’s brother-in-law Leonidas (Gredier Meza)—threaten not only his family, but peace across the families of the Wayuu. In “Birds of Passage,” Guerra and Gallego create a Shakespearean play set in ’70s, indigenous Columbia with expert pacing, understated but effective acting, and an eye for exquisite cinematography.

The film is not Guerra’s first—his previous film “Embrace of the Serpent” (which Gallego produced) won the Arthouse Cinema Award at the 2015 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards—but “Birds of Passage” marks Gallego’s first turn behind the camera, and the collaboration does not disappoint. The married couple uses the Guajira desert as an ethereal backdrop, shooting landscapes that are nearly overwhelming in their immensity. The scenery jumps back and forth between arid emptiness and lush green fields, ripe with marijuana crops, a juxtaposition that mirrors the rivalry between Ursula and Rapayet as the family’s leaders. Whereas Rapayet embodies the future, a break from a more classic way of life for the indigenous Columbians—his calculating dark side eventually positions him as the marijuana kingpin of the Wayuu people—Ursula represents the traditional: She guards the family talisman, interprets her daughter’s dreams of foreboding danger, and clashes with Rapayet’s own idea of what it means to protect the family. And yet, both are two sides of the same coin; despite their differences, their common goal of rising up the ranks while staying true to the Wayuu legacy they try to pass onto Zaida and Rapayet’s kids is a conflict the film hints will end in blood.

And it does end in bloodshed, which begins with Rapayet’s transformation once Moises betrays him. The result is a cast of characters whose nearly blank facial expressions throughout resonate more than the reverberating cricketing of the insects plaguing the desert. Acosta and Martínez both barely emote in their respective roles, chilling the audience with a single glare that speaks to the power they hold. The actors speak more with their eyes than anything else, the screenplay not doing justice to the affectation of cold control they both embody. Indeed, at the beginning of the film, a character says “If there’s family, there’s respect. If there’s respect, there’s honor. If there’s honor, there’s word.” But as the characters gradually lose each, Gallego and Guerra rely on what little but effective physicality their actors use. Their performances aren’t grand in the traditional sense, but in a family where tradition rules, there’s little need for it in the acting.

Where the acting is brilliantly muted, the pacing of the film, which is told in five “songs,” is similarly a slow burn, with bits of violence—both explicitly portrayed and subtly suggested—interspersed throughout. The film succeeds thanks to Guerra and Gallego’s wise inversion: They gradually depict less and less violence to build up the tension until the very end, lulling the audience into a false sense of security before surprising with a bang that rings louder in the dead of the desert than the shootout at the end of “Scarface.” It’s the play on the sounds of nature with gunshots that paradoxically lingers in “Birds of Passage,” a simultaneously vivid and restrained thriller of a film that provides a snapshot into the lives of a people whose home and work lives inextricably intersect to devastating results.

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—Staff writer Mila Gauvin II can be reached at mila.gauvin@thecrimson.com.

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