When it comes to the drug trade as portrayed in movies, it always seems like we make mere pit stops around the Colombian villages that manufacture the product. We see glimpses of a warmer, dirtier operation amid a culture of great tradition and intimidation. But Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano) not only keeps us here but lets us deep within the beautiful and terrifying world. And it’s far from a typical glance, taking in the entire environment, culture, and mentality of how dealing in drugs is far more complicated than alliances and bottom lines.
Taking place in the 1960s and carrying into the 1980s, the film follows an indigenous Wayuu family in Colombia who soon find a big business in selling marijuana to Americans. After working out the details, wealth comes to their people. Dreams begin to expand from the simple desire to get married to lush villas, fancy cars, and decadent parties. Tradition still plays a heavy role in their culture, but it only becomes muddier once greed shifts the game of tribes and turns ambitious men violent.
One such man is Rapayet (José Acosta), so desperate to marry the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes) he’s willing to pay a hefty dowry to win the approval of her mother, Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez). To make that payment, however, he decides to become involved in the drug trade, dealing to the hippies of the Peace Corps to make a profit. With the rise of drugs entering into the 1970s, it doesn’t take too long for Rapayet to make not only enough to marry Zaida but enough to live comfortably with an amassed fortune.
All seems to be going well for him until the distrust sets in, and it sets in fast. Best friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez) becomes far too comfy, and so mighty with his position that if he suspects he’s being cheated, he answers with a bullet. Úrsula’s troublesome son Leonídas (Greider Meza) keeps stirring the pot, creating a grander distance between tribes. This leads to killings that only complicate matters, both in terms of the deals being made and in how the Wayuu handle their dead. There are so many rules of the family in every aspect, from marriage to death, to messengers that it only makes the war of drugs all the more dense and intriguing.
Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra give their film plenty of room to breathe in its world. The term “epic” has been thrown a lot by other critics about Birds of Passage, and it’s definitely warranted. It may not feature the most tantalizing of locations—even Rapayet’s plush estate seems to be located in the middle of flat-landed nowhere—but the beauty is in the shooting. And the contrast of the dusty plains of villages alongside the greener acres of the more decadent establishments paints a gorgeous picture of a dirty and spiritual village. There’s plenty of faith in these beautiful wide angles, with the explosive and violent destruction of an estate all done in one shot from a distance, letting the scene play out in a manner unlike most other films, which would resort to lots of quick cutting. The actors also shine, with performances that touch on such a great subtlety you’re never sure when certain powder kegs in the plot are going to explode.
There’s a lot to decipher in Birds of Passage, but it is wonderfully presented in the form of chapters with musical transitions by a narrator. There’s enough time spent on the finer points of this story that it’s easy enough to become accustomed to this messy yet familiar story of drug dealing gone bad. It’s unfortunate that the film didn’t quite make the list of Academy Award nominations for best foreign film, as it’s truly an engrossing experience that lingers in the mind long after the final song is sung.