Unlike any gangster/drug movie you've ever seen, Pájaros de verano (Birds of Passage) is from the same team that made the astonishing El abrazo de la serpiente (2015), and presents a thematically similar narrative, looking at the disintegration of an ancient indigenous culture over a period of years; in this case, the Wayúu people of the Guajira Peninsula in northern Colombia, whose way of life is decimated by the marijuana trade during the 1970s. Written by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal from a story by Cristina Gallego, and directed by Gallego and Ciro Guerra, the film is thematically focused on the clash between ancient tradition and modern greed, and is deeply respectful of the Wayúu, with Gallego and Guerra clearly troubled by the cultural losses concomitant with monetary prosperity. Partly an ethnographic study and partly a genre film depicting the rise and fall of a drug kingpin á la Scarface (1983), Pájaros strikes a broadly successful balance, allowing genre to inform anthropology and anthropology to enrich genre. On paper, it could be dismissed as just another gangster film, and although their adherence to the genre template does occasionally work against the story they're trying to tell, Gallego and Guerra have made a beautifully nuanced, aesthetically exceptional, and deeply lamentative film.
Loosely based on a true story, and divided into five sections - "Canto I: Wild Grass" (1968), "Canto II: The Graves" (1971), "Canto III: Prosperity" (1979), "Canto IV: The War" (1980), and "Canto V: Limbo" (1981) - Pájaros opens in a Wayúu village in 1968, with a ceremony celebrating the coming of age of Zaida (Natalia Reyes), which doubles as a courtship ritual. When Rapayet (José Acosta) makes a claim on her, her mother Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez) is unimpressed, because as a small trader of coffee and liquor, he is Zaida's social inferior, and hoping to put him off, she assigns him a dowry far beyond his means. However, he seizes on something suggested by his business partner, Moisés (Jhon Narváez), who has pointed out that the local American Peace Corp are looking for someone from whom to buy weed to bring it back to the US. Selling them the marijuana they want, Rapayet is not especially bothered that such illegal trade is frowned upon by the Wayúu, and he quickly makes enough money to secure the dowry, marrying Zaida. By the time we reach Canto II in 1971, Rapayet and the increasingly hot-headed and reckless Moisés are flying planeloads of weed across the border, and making so much money they have to weigh it rather than count it. However, as time passes, and the business becomes bigger and bigger, Úrsula warns Rapayet to tread carefully, but as the profit continues to escalate, so too do the tensions between the various players, compounded by Úrsula's cruel and uncontrollable son Leonídas ([link=nm9820632).
That Pájaros is aiming for a grand, folkloric tale of national significance, along the same lines as more traditional Colombian myths such as La Llorona or El Mohan, is seen in the fact that it both begins and ends with a blind bard narrating the events. Taken directly from the Homeric tradition, the presence of this figure immediately indicates the kind of story this is.
Aesthetically, although not as striking as Embrace of the Serpent, Pájaros still looks fantastic. Cinematographer David Gallego does a fantastic job of capturing the vast openness of the desert, with exquisitely composed shots that make full use of the 2.35:1 format, often dwarfing the characters against the immensity of the desert background. In terms of performances, Carmiña Martínez is the standout, tapping into the similarities between Úrsula and the queen in any number of Greek tragedies, someone whose beliefs are grounded in ethics, but who is on a preordained path of tragedy from which she cannot escape. And just as the gods were indifferent to the suffering of Euripides's Medea and Sophocles's Electra, so too are the deities of the Wayúu.
Throughout the film, the economy of Gallego and Guerra's visual language is striking. For example, early on, Rapayet, Zaida, and Úrsula are all shown living in small thatched huts made of stone and wood. Later, however, they live in in a heavily guarded sprawling modernist mansion in the middle of the desert. Another example is that, initially, we see Rapayet and Moisés using only one plane to carry their weed, but later, they have a fleet of planes at their command, telling us in one shot how much the scale of their operation has increased.
Although they remain within the parameters of the crime drama, depicting the rise and fall of a gangster, Guerra and Gallego are more concerned with the impact of the drug trade on the Wayúu than the drug trade itself. Uninterested in going into detail about the logistics of Rapayet's operation, they instead use the genre template as a platform from which to examine the clash between the ancient local traditions of the Wayúu and the ubiquitous and corruptive nature of monetary accruement as found in the twentieth-century world at large. The Wayúu are proud of how deep their customs run and how long they have maintained them, but their nonconformist and isolationist ideology has never faced anything as insidious as the avarice introduced by Rapayet. Just how corruptive it is, is seen in Leonídas, a boy who has grown up amidst amorality, corruption, and crime, and whose soul is built on Mammonism and entitlement. In the film's most disturbing scene, to "prove" his manhood to his friends, he forces a man to eat dog faeces for a wad of cash. Nothing in Wayúu history has ever prepared them for this level of barbarism.
In this sense, Pájaros is fundamentally about the clash between tradition and modernity; codes of honour and reciprocity destroyed by greed, materialism, and mistrust. In depicting the society before the birth of the drug trade, however, Gallego and Guerra are trying to reclaim Colombia's history for Colombians. All a lot of people know about Colombia comes from films made almost exclusively by non-Colombians for non-Colombians (think of Americentrist films such as Blow (2001), The Infiltrator (2016), and American Made (2017)). The film thus has an anthropological basis, immersing us in Wayúu culture throughout. However, Gallego and Guerra don't need to go into detail about the ins and outs of dream analysis, the systems of hegemony and protocol, the exchange-based economy, or the specifics of why one necklace is sacred but another is not. We're shown enough to understand how these people live - the centrality of family, the respect for the natural world, the reverence for the dead, the significance of communal ritual, the importance of ancient customs and superstitions, and above all, honour in all things.
The film makes its intentions known in the opening scene, which is built around Zaida's ceremony, just as The Godfather (1972) indicates its main focus with the opening depiction of a wedding. Without any dialogue, the scene establishes the socio-political centrality of ritual and introduces us to the hierarchies and spiritual beliefs. This opening scene is contrasted with a later scene depicting a "second burial"; a custom where a casket is unearthed and opened, and the bones of the deceased cleaned and reburied. Unlike in the opening, the ritual in this scene is surrounded by men with machine guns; a nice bit of cinematic shorthand to show us how much has changed. In another example, after doing something to anger a rival clan, Leonídas is hidden away in a hut, and Úrsula performs a protective incantation. Leonídas, however, is unimpressed, saying he'd be happier if he was protected by men with guns. Elsewhere, a motif running through the film is the threat of a locust infestation, and when violence inevitably erupts, it's presented like a plague on the land, something that cannot be contained and that will blight all it touches.
In terms of problems, there are a few. For one, Rapayet is an extremely stoic character and very vaguely defined. He doesn't really come across as a person with an interiority, so rather than being someone who pursues things, he is someone to whom things happen, a cypher at the mercy of what the writers need him to be at any given moment. Along these lines, Zaida fares even worse. Despite the opening scene suggesting her centrality to the narrative, once she and Rapayet are married, she essentially becomes a background extra.
These few issues notwithstanding, Pájaros de verano is an exceptional film about the clash between the old and new worlds. A melancholy corrective to films such as Loving Pablo (2017) and shows such as Narcos (2015), it tells a story of a traditional culture decimated by greed. Making a powerful statement about what has been lost, by and large, Gallego and Guerra handle the integration of ethnographic study and genre film very well, with the movie as a whole serving as an excellent example of how talented filmmakers can use genre to serve their own thematic ends without necessarily making a genre film. Neither a thriller with some local details thrown on top nor a documentary with a manufactured dramatic structure, Pájaros is compelling and heartfelt throughout. The sense of detail, the cultural specificity, and the tragic inevitability of the story serve to fuse the socio-political, the ethnographic, and the thriller into a whole that is unlike any drug film you're likely to see.
Birds of Passage
Birds of Passage
During the marijuana bonanza, a violent decade that saw the origins of drug trafficking in Colombia, Rapayet and his indigenous family get involved in a war to control the business that ends up destroying their lives and their culture.
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June 04, 2019 at 08:52 AM