Birds of Passage (Pájaros de Verano) - 2019
Director(s): Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra
Writer(s): Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal (screenplay) / Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra (story)
Cinematography by: David Gallego
Editor(s): Miguel Schverdfinger
Cast: Carmiña Martínez, José Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narváez, José Vicente, Juan Bautista Martínez, Aslenis Márquez and Greider Meza
Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra made a name for themselves with mainstream audiences thanks to2015’s Embrace of the Serpent the first Columbian film ever to receive a nomination for an Academy Award. When it was announced that their follow, Birds of Passage (Pájaros de Verano), got into 2018 Cannes Film Festival and made the shortlist for this year’s Academy Awards, I was immediately looking forward to watching it, despite having to wait due to my Midwest handicap. After finally getting to watch, shout out to the Esquire Theater, I can say it was worth the wait. Let’s talk about it.
The story follows a Wayuu family's rise and fall in the early days of the drug trading in Columbia. Divided into five chapters (cantos) that span three decades (the 60s to the 80s) in of the life of Rapayet (Acosta), as he struggles to provide for his family and clan while adhering to the traditions and customs of the Wayuu. While the rise and fall aspect of a crime epic is not anything we haven't seen before, it defers by setting it within the deeply-rooted culture of the Wayuu in Columbia making the film feel refreshing and new. The opening sequence sucks you in as we are immediately dropped at the end of a Wayuu ritual, one of many depicted throughout, as Zaida (Reyes) emerges from her period of isolation, and her clan welcomes her through celebration. The delicate treatment of the traditions throughout, along with an incredible score, makes it almost seem as if you are watching a documentary of the events. The customs of the clan add constraints to the growth of Rapayet's business, forcing him to make a string of tough decisions that ultimately cost him and his clan everything. His friction with his mother-in-law and head of the clan leader is one of the most compelling elements of the film. His mother-in-law's moral decay due to their involvement in the drug trade makes her an antagonist far more complex than the typical mother-in-law that thinks the husband is not good enough for her daughter.
Quick note: the authenticity of the film and the traditions depicted are due to the crew being over thirty percent Wayuu. The actors are also surrounded by real Wayuu on screen, further adding to the authentic experience of audience member being introduced to this culture for the first time.
Gallego and Guerra teamed up with cinematographer David Gallego to bring to life this beautiful epic that takes full advantage of Columbia's landscape. The use of color via costume design to contrast the dry pale color of the desert that surrounds most of the events depicted on screen create almost a dream-like quality for the film. The use of the darkness that comes from living outside the cities is beautiful as your eyes are naturally drawn to the only source of light on the screen. The tone was kept throughout the film, and each chapter has its conflict that ties with the overall arch of the story. The more I think about my experience, the more I feel was watching an art-house Scarface or Godfather - if I am so bold to compare the films or even place the "art-house" label on this epic - however, it is the best (easiest) way to describe the movie.
Birds of Passage (Pájaros de Verano) depiction of how to quest for money, luxury and social status, can corrupt anyone and anything, even a clan as the Wayuu that is so deeply rooted in humility and traditions. The moral decay the befalls everyone involved in this drug empire is heartbreaking to watch, but you cannot look away thanks to the beautiful touch from Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra. Seek it out if you can.
Birds of Passage (Pájaros de Verano) is Glass Half Full.
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