The drug lord storyline has been told many a time from Scarface to Narcos. It is a resilient genre that often allows for unique versions of what is essentially the same rise and fall storyline. Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra's follow-up to Embrace of the Serpent hits all the familiar notes of these types of stories and yet feels something very unique thanks to the cultural explorations of the traditional of the Wayuu people.
The Wayuu are a Native American ethnic group that have long inhabited the Guajira peninsula. This is a desert area between Columbia and Venezuela. Divided into five songs or chapters, the film opens on a ceremony in the 1960s. The daughter of clan matriarch Ursula (Carmiña Martinez) has reached womanhood after a year of isolation. She, Zaida, is now able to marry and catches the eye of Raphayet (José Acosta). In order to marry her, he needs the blessing of Ursula and a large dowry. Raphayet's uncle Peregrino (José Vicente Cotes) is able to get the blessing but the dowery presents a bigger challenge. Raphayet is a small-time trader of alcohol and tobacco and doesn't have the money needed. He sees an opportunity to move marijuana by working with some American Peace Corp workers. Soon, he has a lucrative drug business that regularly transports drugs out of the country.
While his drug business is able to win him Zaida, it unleashes violence throughout his family and people. His partner in the drug business is greedy and uncontrollable, leading to serious problems. His wife's younger brother is psychotic and unhinged, offending the local grower who supplies the product. Raphayet is forced to become a ruthless figure in order to protect his family and business.
While all of this may sound very typical for a film about a drug lord, the directors never lose sight of how Raphayet's actions being to destroy the clan system of the Wayuu culture. Traditions get thrown away in the pursuit of greed and this unique perspective keeps Birds of Passage a fascinating watch. This is never about one man's rise and fall but about how long-running traditions and culture get demolished by the pursuit of capitalism. The gangster tropes used allow audiences to access the story. In contrast, the Wayuu customs are rarely given an explanation, forcing the viewers to think about what they are seeing.
Birds of Passage is a beautifully shot film. Cinematographer David Gallego uses the widescreen images to show a changing landscape. The use of color is vivid and striking in comparison to "Serpent's" monochromatic palette. Gallego and Guerra are skillful directors and manage great performances across the board. The standout is Martínez as Ursula.
Birds of Passage may hit familiar notes in the trajectory of its story but the film has a specific lens through which it wants to tell the rise and fall of a gangster. It is able to stand out in the genre thanks to the cultural focus it gives to the Wayuu culture.