‘Birds of Passage’ a portrait of a little-known culture, with drugs

“Birds of Passage,” from Colombia, tells a story about the drug trade and its tragic toll on a man and a family. Absorbingly told through the eyes of its indigenous characters, the movie, opening Friday at the Embarcadero, isn’t just a subtitled narco picture. It’s a remarkable portrait of a little-known culture.

Directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, collaborators on “The Embrace of the Serpent,” continue to explore the effects of outsider influence on traditional communities in this gangster drama and family saga written by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal.

The protagonists are Wayuu people living in Colombia’s desert-meets-sea La Guajira region in pre-Pablo Escobar years. The style combines realistic storytelling with Hollywood entertainment and tinges of Latin American surrealism.

Stretching from 1968 into the early 1980s, the story begins when Ursula (Carmina Martinez), the powerful matriarch of a Wayuu family, is preparing Zaida (Natalia Reyes), her daughter, for a public appearance marking her transformation from girlhood to womanhood.

During a yonna dance, Zaida and coffee trader Rapayet (Jose Acosta) engage in intense footwork and eye contact. Rapayet, viewed disapprovingly by Ursula as an outsider who disregards omens, seeks Zaida’s hand but must first provide the agreed-on dowry.

To pay for it, Rapayet teams up with hotheaded pal Moises (Jhon Narvaez), a fellow avid capitalist, to sell marijuana to American Peace Corps volunteers. The enterprise also involves a dangerous cousin, Anibal (Juan Bautista Martinez). Soon, Rapayet is running a lucrative drug operation.

Prosperity begets violence when Moises, drunk on wealth, becomes trigger-happy, igniting a clan war of honor and vengeance.

Were this a drug drama with a rise-and-fall gangster story, it wouldn’t be extraordinary. Formula guides the plot. The tragedies of Rapayet and his family aren’t moving.

But the movie triumphs as it shows how drug trafficking and greed have destroyed families and eroded native cultures.

Collaborations between the filmmakers and Wayuu crew members yielded a nonjudgmental seemingly wholly authentic and fascinating picture of Wayuu life — from the mating-ritual-like yonna dance to a ceremony in which a dead relative’s bones are exhumed, cleaned and reburied, to the use of peace-offering-delivering “word” messengers to the everyday female activity of crocheting.

The filmmakers also explore the Wayuu belief in omens. Birds, special in the culture, become dramatically poetic symbols suggesting warnings overlooked by outsiders like Rapayet.

The title also refers to the drug planes in the desert, which resemble birds and signal disaster, and, more brightly, to the sight of Zaida in her loose-flowing red dress, which flaps like wings during her dance.

While Acosta and the Hollywood-embraced Reyes are charismatic, Carmina Martinez as Ursula supplies crucial gravity and formidability. A talisman-owning matriarch who, to preserve her family and culture, behaves as lethally as an organized-crime boss, she’s terrific.

Birds of Passage
Three stars
Starring: Jose Acosta, Carmina Martinez, Natalia Reyes, Juan Bautista Martinez
Written by: Maria Camila Arias, Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
Directed by: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra
Not rated
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

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