Thursday, March 7, 2019

A drug story told in a unique voice

Birds of Passage takes us deep into Colombia's Indigenous world.

Perhaps you think you've seen every possible permutation of every possible story revolving around the Colombian drug trade. If so, think again.

Colombian directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego have teamed for Birds of Passage, an entirely fresh movie that spans almost 20 years as it tells the story of how one member of the Indigenous Wayuu of Columbia becomes involved in the sale of large quantities of marijuana.

Beginning their compelling story in the 1960s, the directors introduce us to Rapayet (Jose Acosta), a young man whose sole ambition is to marry the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a young woman we meet after she's liberated from the year of isolation that precedes her entry into full womanhood.

As determined as he is, Rapayet has nothing to offer. He doesn't have enough wealth to assemble a dowry and he faces a future mother-in-law problem. Like many mothers, Zaida's authoritarian mom (Carmina Martinez) thinks her daughter can do better; i.e., someone she believes to be more steeped in Wayuu ways.

But Rapayet won't be deterred. He and a non-Wayuu pal (Jhon Narvaez) begin selling marijuana to American Peace Corps volunteers. Their business quickly expands and Rapayet emerges as a drug kingpin and a husband.

Rapayet's ascendance leads to an alliance with another relative. Juan Bautista Martinez's Anibal, a big shot who presides over another Wayuu family, and who grows marijuana. Rapayet supplies an outlet for Anibal's crop with an export business that relies on Americans who pilot small planes out of Colombia.

Birds of Passage feels wholly original because the upward and downward spirals it charts are set against a backdrop of Indigenous culture that's detailed with bracing authenticity by Guerra and Gallego. Moreover, the movie's haunting landscapes lend near-primal significance to the conflict between ancient ways and the unforgiving demands of modernity.

When Raphayet moves his family -- which now includes his mother-in-law and children -- away from its village surroundings, they take up residence in a new, sparsely modern home in the middle of nowhere. Images of the house with its blindingly white interiors underscore what's happened. In accumulating wealth, Rapayet has isolated himself and his family from the communal nourishment that has sustained the Wayuu for centuries.

At the same time, Gallego and Guerra touch many of the bases of standard drug dramas: the wayward associate whose rampant misbehavior must be dealt with by Rapayet; a spoiled son (Greider Meza) who grows into an alarmingly obnoxious young man; a mother-in-law who tries to maintain control over her son-in-law and who most vividly embodies the tension between corrupting new ways and time-tested tradition.

In the drug trade, violence always remains close at hand and plenty of it arises as the movie follows its cast of professional and non-professional actors. No one in the cast seems out-of-place and Acosta gives a performance that's convincingly reserved. There's nothing showy about him and that makes Birds of Passage all the more credible.

It should help to know that Guerra also directed Embrace of the Serpent, a 2015 movie of astonishing beauty and unforced exoticism. Once again, he -- this time with a co-director -- takes us into a world that we don't know. Their achievement qualifies as substantial. Birds of Passage tells us much about the tragic destruction wrought by a trade that threatens communities, leaving heartbreak and corpses scattered in its wake.

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