“Birds of Passage” also has the contours of a classical romance, in which a young couple faces obstacles that are particular to the Wayuu and yet grandly archetypal. The drama begins with the Wayuu ceremony for a woman’s coming of age: Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has spent the customary year of literal confinement, under the tutelage of her mother, Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), mastering handicrafts (weaving, knitting) and emerging before her clan in a public coming out that’s also a courtship ritual. Wearing a billowing cape and head scarf, her face painted, surrounded by a crowd of people defining a stage-like circle for her emergence, Zaida does an onrushing dance in which the young man who chooses to court her, Rapayet (José Acosta), joins her, running and dancing backward as she charges, and deftly showing his physical aplomb, in meeting her step for step and gaze for gaze—and concluding, to the crowd’s admiration, by whispering to Zaida, “You are my woman.”
But Rapayet is not Zaida’s social equal. He is a poor orphan, raised by his uncle, Peregrino (José Vicente Cote), who occupies a special place in Wayuu society: Peregrino is a “word messenger,” a poor man with a sacred function—he carries word between parties to disputes and helps to mediate them. Zaida’s family, the Pushainas, are prosperous—above all, through the ruthless determination of its matriarch, Úrsula, who demands of Rapayet a high dowry for Zaida (of cows, goats, and traditional necklaces) that he could likely never afford through his labors as a low-level trader, or perhaps black marketeer, of coffee and liquor. But, on the trading circuit that he shares with his happy-go-lucky friend Moisés, a.k.a. Moncho (Jhon Narváez), who’s not of the Wayuu people, he learns of hippie-ish young American Peace Corps volunteers who are trying in vain to buy marijuana—and, with an idea of where to get some, he decides to make some fast money.
The source of the marijuana is a remote and well-guarded hillside farm compound owned by Rapayet’s cousin Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez), who is suspicious of Rapayet’s plan—not least because such trade is considered taboo, or at least desecrating, for the Wayuu people, whose code of traditions bars them from certain worldly activities and imposes elaborate purification rituals. Rapayet makes the money quickly, delivers the dowry—under the suspicious eye of Úrsula—and marries Zaida. But, as Rapayet expands the business and makes more money, he also brings outsiders (called “alijuna”) to the Wayuu region, who unwittingly disrupt ceremonies, defy traditions, and ignore taboos. With the inevitable violence that results from the drug trade—the high-pressured, high-risk confrontations that enforce agreements and punish betrayals—Rapayet desecrates Wayuu land, dishonors the Wayuu people, and makes his family the target of violent rivals, including Aníbal and his gunmen.
Divided into five “songs,” or acts, spanning a decade and a half, “Birds of Passage” unfolds at a tragic tread that’s both relentless and deliberate. The film is pervaded by a sense of doom, by premonitions that the clan’s new good fortune will inevitably bring misfortune through the eroding of the traditions that set the Wayuu apart as a people. While detailing, in observation of events and attention to discussions, the elaborate regulations of Wayuu life, the filmmakers also convey the spiritual aspect of the Wayuu. They depict characters’ dreams onscreen and add the interpretations of the elders, dramatizing the force of talismans and the clues of totems to defend, warn, or menace the families at the movie’s center.
The Wayuu villages are small and densely populated but surrounded by vast uninhabited spaces, mainly of hard, barren, and sunbaked plains, and Gallego and Guerra film the landscapes with a contemplative curiosity and a probing concentration that are also dramatically incisive, even gripping. As Rapayet and Zaida, living with Úrsula and their children, replace their stone-and-branch hut with a new modern home on a desolate plain, they’re in a commanding view of anyone who approaches from a great distance—and in grave suspense anticipating those who do. The movie’s violence is filmed frankly but without sensationalism, conveying a moral revulsion that replicates the Wayuu’s taboo of blood and of corpses, which, with their near-priestly status, they must shun.
“Birds of Passage,” in its passionate engagement with the Wayuu way of life, preserves and embodies it. The movie unfolds the legal structure of Wayuu society, with scenes of its many families’ leaders debating collective action, according to the code of compensations and punishments; it also depicts aesthetic and ritualistic aspects of the culture, such as funerary rites (including a second burial, involving the exhumation and cleansing of bones). Cultural memory is both the subject of the film and its purpose. The movie opens and closes with a local singer (Sergio Coen), who himself has a place in the action, and who knows and sings the story of Rapayet, Zaida, and Úrsula, of the family and its fate—and its place in Wayuu tradition, and also in the wider world. In its sense of the investigative dramatic and societal background to the singer’s song, the film is reminiscent of one of Martin Buber’s “Tales of the Hasidim,” about the replacement, over generations, of the practice of ritual with stories about that practice. The cultural richness of “Birds of Passage” is overwhelming, its sense of detail piercingly perceptive, and its sense of drama rigorously yet organically integrated with its documentary elements. Fusing the sociopolitical, the natural, and the mythopoetic realms, the movie offers a model to filmmakers anywhere regarding the dramatic power that inheres in the cultural specifics of any story.
“Birds of Passage” is also an Oscar-battle casualty: it’s one of the nine films that made the Academy’s shortlist of foreign-language-film contenders, but it didn’t make the final five, though it easily should have—it is by far the best of the lot. (Guerra and Gallego’s previous film, “Embrace of the Serpent,” from 2015—she produced, he directed—is also an ethnographic drama based on a true story; it did make the foreign-film final five, where it, too, should have won.) There’s a sublime bravado in releasing the film this week, as the Academy wraps up its Oscars voting. It’s also further evidence, if any were needed in the season of all-ballyhoo, that awards pass into trivia while the experience, and the memory, of great movies endures.
Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999. He writes about movies in his blog for newyorker.com. He is the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”