Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano, Colombia-Denmark-Mexico-Germany-Switzerland-France, 2018)

Proto-gangsters

I didn’t get on with Ciro Guerra’s last film, the well-received Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente, Columbia-Venezuela-Argentina, 2015), for reasons I don’t remember. However, I loved this one, co-directed with Cristina Gallego who produced the earlier film; it’s scripted by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde based on the directors’ idea. It tells us the ‘true story’ of how the drug trade, and particularly the Medellin cartel, came to decimate indigenous traditions in Columbia. Apparently there’s much dispute about the accuracy of the film, however I took the film, which suggests the start of the drug trade began with the Peace Corps in the late 1960s, as a metaphor for the malign influence of capitalist North America rather than as a form of documentary.

The film starts with a riveting Wayuu ritual of a young woman, Zaida (Natalia Reyes, who appeared in the most recent Terminator film), coming out of confinement (one year!) as part of her rite of passage and immediately being courted, in a bird-like dance, by Rapayet (newcomer José Acosta). A large dowry is set which he proceeds to get by opportunistically supplying marijuana to the Americans. Such a patriarchal ceremony mustn’t be forgotten in the light of what follows. Most of the film dramatises the changes necessitated by the growing drug trade as at the expense of tradition; however, just because something has been done for years doesn’t mean it’s good or right. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that the destruction meted out in pursuit of wealth is devastating.

‘Bird’ courtship

I was more interesting in the representation of the indigenous community than the drug gang narrative. Another (virtual) newcomer is Carmiña Martínez, who plays Zaida’s mother, Úrsula, and is a strong antidote to the patriarchal treatment of young women as she is in charge. Martínez superbly portrays the matriarch’s formidable character whose indulgence of her wayward son is also the family’s undoing. She is a seer of sort; her visions of birds portend the future. There are some fabulous dream sequences that seem to come directly from the imagination of Salvador Dalí.

Daliesque dreams

The surrealism extends to reality: the family accrues luxuries in the desert and the contrast between their affluent villa and its surroundings are a brilliant metaphor for the spiritual emptiness of the wealth. The conflagration of the finale, like Bacurau, owes something to spaghetti westerns and is as much a catharsis as a tragedy.

Luxury in the desert

I shall have to go back to Embrace of the Serpent to see if I can see what I missed.

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