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« Why *None* of the Nominees Can Win Best Picture This Year | Main | Get Your Votes in for the Supporting Actress Smackdown! »
Friday
Feb152019

Review: Birds of Passage

by Abe Fried-Tanzer

Modernity is rarely a welcome concept for those rooted in tradition. What many see as progress is often decried as the destruction of long-held values and an attempt to push out members of the old guard who still adhere to customs they do not believe to be outdated. Every community must adapt to technological progress in some way or remain isolated from the rest of the world, a strategy that can’t last forever.

In Colombia's Birds of Passage, which made the nine-wide finalist list for foreign film but missed the nomination, the setting is the 1960s and the disruptive influence is the drug trade. Rapayet (José Acosta) becomes engaged to Zaida (Natalia Reyes), and, according to the customs of their indigenous Wayúu community, must present her family with a substantial dowry. Motivated by pride more than anything, Rapayet sees a business opportunity to provide Americans from the Peace Corps with marijuana...


His quick presentation of the entire requested assortment of goods is met with suspicion by Zaida’s mother, creating the first crack in the foundation of a populace previously able to remain separate from new vices and influences.

While Rapayet is chastised for his behavior, what most within his society object to is his partnership with Moisés (Jhon Narváez), whose background is different. They see him not as an invading foreigner but as an other just as worthy of contempt. Moisés does himself no favors by refusing to respect the way in which the Wayúu expect him to behave. Rapayet remains reserved and far less showy, but, as is often the case, the allure of financial prosperity beyond prescribed means is impossible to resist.

This film feels a lot like the first and so far only Colombian film nominated for Best Foreign Film, Embrace of the Serpent. Birds of Passage's married co-directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra served as producer and director, respectively, on that earlier black-and-white drama about two white scientists searching for a mystical plant with an Amazonian shaman. Serpent provided a haunting depiction of what external influence looks like on established culture. Birds starts at a later point of intersection, where its native populace is already aware of what lies beyond its borders and survives by insisting that continued adherence to what they believe is the surest path to stability.

As with Serpent, Gallego and Guerra excel most at portraying the people, immersed in the power of their ritual dances or the emphasis on word messengers to relay news and broker important treaties. The most compelling and unforgettable images find characters clad in both modern and ceremonial garb gathered within a large white house that sits all by itself in the middle of a vast landscape, representing one last stronghold in a place that once used to be defined by peace and has now been corrupted by competing interests and the destructive pull of money.

Especially in an age where Pablo Escobar is frequently featured in television and film projects, presenting Colombia as a land overwhelmed by drugs and the riches that come from its proliferation, it’s affirming to see a slower take inspired by real events that spends time with those who aren’t seen partying and spending every dollar to build themselves impenetrable fortresses but still play a part in bringing violence and unrest to a previously untouched community. It also serves as a strong follow-up to Embrace of the Serpent, preserving its depiction of indigenous culture and placing it within the context of an appropriately reserved epic drama.

Grade: B

Birds of Passage has now opened in New York and Los Angeles movie theaters.

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