The Colombian-born director Ciro Guerra makes films about the brutal corruption of what First Worlders call the Third World but Guerra would call the essential one: of indigenous peoples who can recognize their ancient origins in the families and objects and landscape around them and then — suddenly, dizzyingly, catastrophically — can’t. His new film (co-directed by Cristina Gallego), Birds of Passage, is part ethnographic documentary, part The Godfather. People who seem (to us) strange and primitive metamorphose into a familiar breed of gangster — the kind that pop culture (American, Mexican, Chinese, you name it) gives undue stature. As in Guerra’s last film, Embrace of the Serpent, the disjunction between enduring ways and modern, ephemeral fashions and equipment and stuff is not just jarring but toxic, a shock to the system that will almost certainly kill the host.
Guerra and Gallego frame Birds of Passage with the breathy song of an elder: a threnody for a lost culture — and a warning. The film is divided in five sections or “songs” (cantos) over a 20-year span, 1960 to 1980. An age-old ritual launches the action: Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), a formidable matriarch of the Wayuu people (a Native American group living in the northern part of Colombia and Venezuela) releases a lovely young woman, Zaida (Natalia Reyes), from years of so-called confinement so that she may attract a mate.
What follows is a yonna, a fast, athletic dance in which the woman in flowing red garments swirls around sundry volunteer males in loincloths like a bird of prey. Zaida locks into an exciting rhythm with the handsome Rapayet (José Acosta), a poor but ambitious fellow who must earn money for her considerable dowry if he hopes to satisfy Úrsula. This he does by buying marijuana from a lordly uncle, Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez), who lives with his clan in the jungle, and then selling it in large quantities to hippieish American Peace Corps volunteers with a mandate to preach against communism. I know: weird. Rapayet and his buddy, Moisés, a.k.a. Moncho (Jhon Narváez), not only disdain communism but raise their beers in a toast to capitalism. Soon, small planes from the States are landing in the jungle and Rapayet and Moncho are on the path to becoming narcos.
You might infer from the above that the Wayuu are initially innocent, noble in their pursuits. I would not put it so definitively. That ritual of “confinement” (which begins at age 12 with the girl’s menstruation) looks through Western eyes like patriarchal repression, even if enforced by women. Rapayet’s black buddy, Moncho, is viewed with disdain as an “Alijunas,” a term applied to all who are not Wayuu but used here with a tinge of racism. When Moncho begins behaving like the typical gangster-film psycho — waving around his gun and murdering people and spending gobs of money on cars and clothes and women — it’s Úrsula, the traditional matriarch, who urges Rapayet to execute him promptly. The upwardly mobile Rapayet, who begins the film as if he’s going to be the embodiment of modern, immortal capitalism, the Scarface or Michael Corleone (or some other Al Pacino figure), turns out to have no stomach for violence. The old uncle, Aníbal, and the old woman, Úrsula, sustain the ghastly war that follows.
Despite the ethnographic trappings, much of Birds of Passage is solidly mainstream. Guerra and Gallego need a stereotypical psycho troublemaker so desperately that after Moncho leaves the film, he’s instantly replaced by the curly-haired, alcoholic sicko Leonidas (Greider Meza), not an Alijunas but the grandson of Úrsula and therefore not so easily dispatched. One unruly nut is an acceptable catalyst for a movie like this, two seems like lazy-formula storytelling. And while there Wayuu nonactors in small roles, Natalia Reyes looks like a future star. She’s billed right behind Linda Hamilton in the coming Terminator movie.
But if Birds of Passage isn’t as crazily original and challenging as Embrace of the Serpent, it’s leaner, swifter, and far more entertaining. It has tons of texture. In one scene, a murdered brother isn’t just mourned after two years in the ground but exhumed and his skull cleaned, as if to relight the embers of vengeance. When things get especially tense, the Wayuu send “word messengers” to their rivals who deliver ultimatums or concessions and by ancient law must never be harmed. Úrsula’s word messenger is Peregrino (José Vicente) who has a great, wizened face and looks as if he came from a thousand years back. To execute him is to explode history. The movie has a broad but very funny visual joke: When Rapayet makes his fortune, he builds a modernist white manse in the middle of the flat, cracked desert, and flunkies with submachine guns complete the what’s-wrong-with-this-picture picture. It’s impractical on many levels. Yes, you can see the Jeeps of the Medellín cartel from far away, but where can you run?
Unlike most gangster-movie directors, Guerra and Gallego take an approach to violence that is rigorously non-ejaculatory — i.e., the audience is never allowed to get off on the killing. You don’t see someone shooting and someone else being shot in the same frame. The messy corpses are discovered afterward, the camera surveying them mournfully. In this scenario, revenge kills people long before anyone dies — it kills their souls. Although there’s a mystical element to Birds of Passage, the film doesn’t depict the prayers and rites and talismans as genuine bridges to a god or gods. You can regard it all as mumbo jumbo, emerge with your religious skepticism intact, and still be convinced by the movie’s essentially conservative message — which is that traditions survive for hundreds (if not thousands) of years for good reason, and to discard them impulsively, out of expediency, is to summon the forces of extinction. The movie is a knockout.