Review: Capitalism and Culture Collides in "Birds of Passage"

Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego's follow-up to _Embrace of the Serpent_ does not disappoint.
Jason Wood

Birds of Passage

Inspired by the travel diaries of Theodor Koch Grunberg (1879–1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001), who provided two of the earliest accounts of Amazonian cultures, Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (2015) remains one of the most potent works of recent world cinema. A story told through the eyes of a warrior shaman of the search into the heart of the Colombian Amazon for the mythical Yakruna plant, the film bears witness how colonialism, religion and the exploitation of rubber affects indigenous traditions and the environment to which they are inextricably linked. So, the stakes were high for Guerra’s next project. Co-directing with Embrace of the Serpent producer Cristina Gallego, the film doesn’t disappoint.

“Told in an intimate, personal way. Our own way,”1 Birds of Passage is another formidable meditation on the corrupting forces of wealth and power, set against the backdrop of the marijuana boom of the 1970s. Documenting the true-to-life rise and fall of rival Wayuu clans in northern Colombia, this visually exquisite work offers spirituality, intrigue and drama on a Shakespearean scale, but also an unexpected take on the cartel crime thriller and an incursion into genre territory.  Guerra has described the film as a synthesis of film noir and mobster movie with the overtones of a western. Gabriel García Marquez has also been invoked as an influence.

In Guajira, Northern Colombia, Wayuu tribe-member Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has come of age, leaving formidable matriarch Ursula (Carmiña Martínez, evoking Jackie Weaver in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom) with the task of finding a suitable match. Her instincts warn her against young Rapayet (José Acosta), an ambitious man with strong links outside of the clan, but the word of his respected uncle Peregrino (José Vicente Cotes) carries weight, so she acquiesces, setting an outrageous dowry. The seed sown, Rapayet stumbles onto a plan with his flamboyant friend Moises and cousin Aníbal to sell marijuana to a visiting American. It’s the beginnings of a profitable new enterprise. As the family rises to prominence, Ursula becomes increasingly complicit in her son-in-law’s business dealings, insisting traditional honor codes are respected and observed. But the trappings of wealth and power soon incite a war that threatens to tear them and their ancient traditions apart.

The directors do not disown their beginnings, with the originality and audaciousness of the film residing in its specificity. Expressing a desire to speak about the native peoples of Latin America and their respective and often overlooked histories, familiar genre tropes and widely recognizable character traits (avarice, pride, machismo, ambition) are filtered through the co-directors’ own unique sensibilities. It’s as if Parajanov had taken a tilt at De Palma’s Scarface (1983) or Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. Lovers of Pink Flamingos (1972) will also find succor in a dog shit-eating episode designed to denigrate and humiliate. It’s a scene that could have come straight from Caligula.  

Again adopting an indigenous perspective, Guerra and Gallego blend the trappings of western influence with colorful Wayuu attire and culture, working with a blend of professional and non-professional actors to great effect. The leads are played by professionals such as Reyes, who immersed herself in the culture and learned the Wayuunaiki language. As a counterpoint to the meticulousness of the trained actors, the non-professionals were chosen for their life experiences and were drawn from several Rancherías, the traditional residencies of the Wayuu in the Guajira region.

A riot of sound, color and widescreen imagery, courtesy of cinematographer David Gallego (who shot the monochrome Embrace of the Serpent and Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not A Witch, another apt frame of reference), the insights into the destabilizing impact of outside influences feel both credible and prescient. Ditto the film’s commentary on the corrupting nature of money, collusion and the insatiable thirst for power: “That soft breeze that seemed to come to refresh, and became the ravaging storm, that showed us the true face of Capitalism, it’s purest form.”2

Enduring an arduous shoot in a barren and unforgiving territory with a rapidly changing micro-climate that brought severe flooding—destroying two sets—and sandstorms, the commitment to the project was born of a desire to rectify the one-sided representation of the Bonanza Marimbera (the exportation of cannabis to the U.S.A. in the 70s and 80s) and to reclaim the history of Colombia and Colombian tradition. In doing so, Guerra and Gallego also represent the fact that Wayuu society is matrilineal and based on a system where women make the majority of the decisions. In a film of numerous pleasures and points of interest, it is especially edifying to see women at the forefront, as opposed to being confined to the margins.

1. Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra quoted in the Birds of Passage Cannes press book (the film screened in Directors’ Fortnight)

2. Ibid.

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