Taking Flight: Birds of Passage Confronts Drug Cartel Narrative From a Unique Perspective

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The Orchard

When revisiting some of the best films about a criminal’s rise to power, you don’t have to look much farther than the original 1972 Oscar-winning drama The Godfather and how a baby-faced Al Pacino stepped up to take over the Corleone family’s shady business and keep them relevant and feared. Since then, strong foreign films like the 2002 Brazilian crime drama City of God and the 2009 French prison drama The Prophet are some of the best examples of a criminal’s cinematic ascent to the top.

Now, a new foreign film, Birds of Passage (from Colombia) finds its place in the crime drama subgenre with the story of an indigenous family at the center of the drug trade in the late 1960s and beyond. It’s a compelling look at one family’s decision to choose greed over dignity — a choice that corrupts their culture and everything that makes them so exceptional.

Leading the cast is first-time actor José Acosta as Rapayet, a poor man of the Wayuu tribe in Northern Colombia, who is determined to find a way to raise the money he needs to pay a steep dowry so he can marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a young woman in his village. Zaida has just celebrated crossing over into womanhood and her mother Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez) isn’t about to let anyone claim her without getting something in return.

When Rapayet and his friend Moises (Jhon Narváez) start selling marijuana, their fortunes begin to rise faster than they could have ever imagined. Before he knows it, Rapayet is making life or death decisions to keep his family safe and his business flourishing.

Told in five chapters, Birds of Passage, Colombia’s official entry for this year’s Academy Awards (it was shortlisted but ultimately didn’t receive a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film), is a confident piece of filmmaking by directing duo Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, who made the beautifully shot, Oscar-nominated foreign film Embrace of the Serpent in 2015.

Although the drug cartel formula is evident in the picture, Gallego and Guerra manage to transcend the familiar narrative by including unique elements and traditions of the characters’ native tribe. It’s an effective balance to the necessary violence that keeps the stakes high for Rapayet and those closest to him.

Birds of Passage isn’t the kind of crime saga that will likely move mountains, but with a strong script and steady direction by Gallego and Guerra, the film takes flight.

Birds of Passage opens at the Santikos Bijou Theater on March 15.

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