I’m lucky enough to have a Curzon as my local multiplex cinema, and that means that in the same week that I see a big commercial crowd pleaser like Pokémon Detective Pikachu, I can then also hope across the hallway to see something like Birds Of Passage. Diversity and versatility is the thing that I love most about film, and my double bill over the last few days is definitely testament to that. As they say, gotta catch ’em all!
Set over the course of generations from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, Birds Of Passage is an epic crime drama that tells the sprawling story of a Wayuu family’s involvement in the early years of the Colombian illegal drug trading boom. A young man named Rapayet (Jose Acosta) marries the much coveted Zaida (Natalia Reyes), and with the guidance of her influential mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez) and his own connections to the criminal world outside of the close knit Native American tribe, the family’s dealings in both marijuana and firearms lead to an evocative and ultimately inevitable rise and fall.
If you, like me, are someone who regards the likes of The Godfather, Scarface and The Sopranos as some of the greatest pieces of entertainment of all time, then there is no doubting that you will find a lot to like about Birds Of Passage. There is no denying that the highs and lows of the narrative follow an extremely familiar trajectory to the tried and tested crime empire building narratives that the world of cinema has seen before, but when a classic plot is executed well, it doesn’t necessarily have to be completely innovative at every turn.
Of course, the film does possess an element of freshness in its unique setting, and that is what brings the most intrigue and ‘X factor’ to proceedings. Instead of the usual Miami nightclubs and New York penthouses, this crime saga unfolds on sparse desert plains and in the depths of condensed humid jungles. Taking actions and monologues that are so synonymous with a certain aesthetic and placing them in new landscapes is really interesting, and something about the ‘different’ nature of it makes Birds Of Passage feel altogether more epic and special than the generic rise and fall narrative might suggest on paper. The usually very urban, grounded elements of drug deals and gang vendettas take on an almost mystical, spiritual twist thanks to the constant contrast of the traditional Wayuu way of life and the ever increasing modern, ‘New World’ influence on the everyday lives of the characters.
Compared to the grandiose design of something like Scarface or the rich elegance of The Godfather, Birds Of Passage revels in a much more minimalistic aesthetic. The awe inspiring beauty of nature takes precedent over material possessions, which in a way adds another interesting question to the mix, where is all this crime money going? It evokes a tone that is much more about the status of power in a community than over the top showings of wealth, something Tony Montana could certainly have learned from!
The film boasts a really impressive cast, none of whom I can admit to having seen before. As Rapayet, Jose Acosta is a stoic and sturdy presence. Opting very much for a Michael Corleone type of leadership, Rapayet is the silent type who is willing to make personally problematic decisions that are best for his growing empire. Acosta does a great job of portraying a character who is stuck halfway between wanting to uphold traditional Wayuu ideals and also bring his people and his family in to a new age of prosperity.
My personal star of the show is Carmina Martinez as the family’s imposing matriarch Ursula. Ursula is a woman who strives to uphold all of her native traditions and beliefs, whilst also having arguably the most cutthroat attitude to ‘business’ in the entire family. Martinez possesses a real gravitas that proves to be quite scene stealing even when she has little dialogue to work with. She succeeds in being a master of the stare, able to communicate pages and pages of script thoughts with a single glare in the right direction.
Further important performances are given by the likes of Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narvaez, Jose Vicente Cotes, Juan Bautista and Greider Meza, each actor bringing a real sense of authenticity and grit to their role. The subtitled mixture of English, Spanish, Wayuu and and Wiwa makes for a really culturally rich experience, and everyone involved on screen helps to add to this.
Overall, Birds Of Passage is an interesting and atmospheric addition to the pantheon of cinematic of crime sagas. A familiar narrative made fresh by a dramatic change of setting, one that achieves a double effect of making the world seem so big in its cultural scale yet small in the universal trials and tribulations that people choose to put themselves through, from the deserts of Colombia to the gaudy mansions of Miami. Allow the film to guide you at its own pace rather than trying to force the narrative, and I assure you that you will have a rich and rewarding time with this one.