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    "One of the reasons I'm enthusiastic about Boris Johnson's prime ministership is because if there was ever a cometh-the-hour, cometh-the-man moment in the recent history of this country, this is it and he is that person."    

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    « I am woman - hear me roar | Main | Our own heart of darkness »
    Friday
    Oct042019

    Drugs, money and death

    The brutality of the drug business in Columbia ... From the directors who brought us Embrace of the Serpent comes Birds of Passage ... America, the greedy satan ... Complex codes of honour ... Sumptuous and gripping ... Peace and war ... Miss Lumière reviews the spectacle  

    Birds of Passage is a magnificent, hybrid beast of a film - part gangster movie, ethnographic study, family drama, crime thriller and historical saga, all rolled into one richly textured portrait of human greed and its consequences.

    Co-directors (and recently divorced couple) Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego have followed their sublime Oscar-winning film Embrace of the Serpent with an equally visually dazzling and psychologically disturbing investigation of Colombian history, this time focussing on the origins of the drug trade.

    Both films explore the damage wrought by white outsiders on indigenous peoples from the point of view of the impinged upon.

    Birds of Passage is a fascinating insight into the customs, language and mores of a particular indigenous group - the Wayuu - who live in the La Guajira desert region of northern Columbia.

    It is their story, told largely in their language and it lays bare the hefty price of their involvement in illicit drugs.

    Spanning two decades from 1968 to 1988 and parsed into five chapters or "cantos" - Wild Grass, The Graves, Prosperity, The War and Limbo, the film follows the story of two powerful families - one that grows marijuana and the other who sells it to an American market hungry for drug-induced bliss.

    The film opens with an austere beauty as young Wayuu girl Zaida (Natalia Reyes) is being prepared to enter womanhood by her mother Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) the family's formidable matriarch.

    The ritual involves a gathering of the clan, flowing robes, ochre face paint, and a mesmerising yonna dance with any male who seeks her hand in marriage.

    When one of her suitors, Rapayet (a simpatico José Acosta) is told by Ursula that he needs a large dowry (goats, mules and necklaces) to secure Zaida, the ambitious young man resolves to get it. 

    While selling coffee on the road with his reckless best friend and Wayuu outsider Moises (Jhon Narváez), Rapayet chances upon some American Peace Corps hippies who are looking for a quantity of "weed".

    He sets out for his cousin Aníbal's (Juan Martínez) property in the hills where he knows it is cultivated.

    There, a deal is struck. Unfortunately, it is, as we already know, one done with the devil. 

    That devil is greed and when greed comes up against the Wayuus' moral code, the devil triumphs through violence.

    After Moises executes two American drug smugglers (just because he can) Rapayet is required by Wayuu law to kill him in return. 

    He does, but it eats his soul and he is forever haunted by the spectre of an ibis-like bird stalking him, one of several magic-realist flourishes the directors employ to great effect.

    There's more violence to come as relations between the two families spiral out of control, fuelled by the rape of Anibal's daughter by Ursula's psychopathic, spoiled son Leonidas.

    Interestingly, the directors never dwell on these acts of violence, but rather on their consequences, both physical (plenty of bloodied corpses) and sociological (the utter destruction of the families).

    The look of the film is sumptuous - superb long shots interspersed with brilliant close-ups and beautifully composed group scenes that recall ethnographic photographs of the nineteenth century.

    The men wear aviator specs and brandish guns that glitter in the brutal sunlight and the women are majestic in graphic flowing dresses and amber beads to die for (some do).

    But make no mistake, Birds of Passage is no colourful ethnic travelogue. 

    The authenticity of the performers (many of them non-actors), the severity of the locations and the devastation of an entire clan sear into the consciousness in a way no tourist ad for Columbia could. 

    Birds of Passage screens in selected cinemas from Thursday October 3. 

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