The Columbian film, Birds of Passage.

Birds of Passage.

Ciro Guer­ro’s Embrace of the Ser­pent was the stand out film of 2015 (reviewed ear­li­er here), so his fol­low up was much antic­i­pat­ed. On the face of it, Birds of Pas­sage, which he direct­ed with his pro­duc­tion part­ner and for­mer wife Cristi­na Gal­lego, couldn’t pos­si­bly be more different.

Over the course of two decades, we watch as the decease of nar­cotics comes to infect the whole of Columbian soci­ety. It begins innocu­ous­ly enough, with the arrival in 1968 of a rag­bag of hip­pies in search of a bet­ter class of high. But very quick­ly, every cor­ner of the coun­try­side has been laid low by the kind of blind greed that only ready cash can pro­duce. And before long, the whole coun­try has descend­ed into a very mod­ern hell.

Embrace of the Serpent.

Where Embrace of the Ser­pent was a med­i­ta­tion on colo­nial­ism in mea­sured blacks and whites, the new film is a riot of colour and awash with noise. But that colour palette aside, the two films share remark­ably sim­i­lar con­cerns. It’s just that they are look­ing at the world through oppo­site ends of the telescope.

This time around, we are embed­ded in the Wayuu group, tribes of native Amer­i­cans who live to the very north, on either side of the bor­der between Colum­bia and Venezuela. And it is through the prism of their con­cerns and their tra­di­tions that we wit­ness the hav­oc wreaked by the spread of the inter­na­tion­al drug trade. So once again, we are look­ing at eth­nic­i­ty, ethnog­ra­phy and the dis­cor­dant clash as age-old tra­di­tions come up against the progress offered by the mod­ern world. 

It’s rav­ish­ing to look at, and sump­tu­ous to behold, son­i­cal­ly speak­ing. And I des­per­ate­ly want­ed it to lift off and take flight. But it doesn’t.

The Wayuu people.

The film’s prob­lems can be traced to its cast­ing. Not the cast, who all do their best, but to the ethos behind the cast­ing. For the film mak­ers insist­ed on cast­ing actu­al Wayuu tribes­peo­ple in a third of the roles, and delib­er­ate­ly avoid­ed any “named” actors through­out – the only name is Natalia Reyes, soon to star in the lat­est Ter­mi­na­tor reboot. Yes, that’s what the world needs, a n oth­er instal­ment from yet anoth­er CGI, green screen Hol­ly­wood franchise. 

She plays the wife of the pro­tag­o­nist, Rapayet. He him­self is played by the Cuban base­ball star Jose Acos­ta. So, unsur­pris­ing­ly, with so many inex­pe­ri­enced per­form­ers, there is a decid­ed dearth of pas­sion to the telling of the tale. And this is fur­ther exac­er­bat­ed by the script. Reyes, for instance, who is so strik­ing­ly cen­tral to the film’s open­ing half an hour, tame­ly dis­ap­pears from view for much of the rest of the film. And with­out that core rela­tion­ship to root for, and giv­en the blood­less, one-dimen­tion­al nature of so many of the oth­er per­for­mances, it’s impos­si­ble to care very much about what hap­pens to the var­i­ous char­ac­ters as they make their way inevitably down.

(L‑R) — José Acos­ta and Natalia Reyes in Birds of Passage

In short, the film is weighed down by its lofty ambi­tions and its sense of moral rec­ti­tude. It’s too ethno­graph­i­cal­ly con­cerned to allow the dra­ma catch fire, but not suf­fi­cient­ly to qual­i­fy as a doc­u­men­tary. It looks and sounds amaz­ing, and it’s def­i­nite­ly not a bad film. It’s just nowhere near as good as it might have been.

You can see the trail­er to Birds of Pas­sage here

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