Netflix UK film review: Birds of Passage
Ivan Radford | On 17, May 2019Reading time: 2 mins
Director: Ciro Guerra, Cristina Gallego
Cast: Carmiña Martínez, José Acosta, Natalia Reyes
Watch Birds of Passage online in the UK: Netflix UK / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Colombia. 1960s. The birth of the drug trade. These are events we think we know, thanks to Netflix’s Narcos and countless other gangster dramas, but you’ve never seen a crime thriller like this. Set in the wilds of North Colombia, Birds of Passage swaps gangs for tribes, and uses that as its lens through which to explore tensions of family, money and power.
Themes of respect are a staple of the genre, but they takes on a spiritual note here, as we see rising male Rapayet (José Acosta) marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes), the daughter of Ursula (Carmiña Martínez), the head of the Wayuu tribe. In doing so, he ties himself to traditions and rituals that go beyond his own morals, and clash with the means of money-making that the tribe’s nascent drugs trade grows into. Over several years, directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra chart an epic saga of betrayal and destiny – a war that goes beyond territory and control, and is overshadowed by the symbolic bird of death that stalks through the sparse landscapes and over the bloodied bodies of intruders and innocents that gradually pile up.
Acosta is superb, investing his young, somewhat foolhardy romantic with an ambition but not the stomach for brutality that you’d expect from the next Scarface. Carmiña Martínez, rather, emerges as the more formidable figure, sternly upholding the values respected among her relatives, even when they cause friction with forces outside of them. From the courting rituals to the word messengers sent between warring parties to deliver gestures of reconciliation, this is a wonderfully detailed and nuanced portrayal of tribal traditions and routines enfused with gangland grit.
Gallego and Guerra previously helmed Embrace of the Serpent, and they bring their same knack for grounded storytelling and gorgeous use of colour, accompanying the story’s drumbeat of revenge with portentous weather, body-strewn landscapes and increasingly lined faces. The result is a grandiose tapestry that weaves an increasing number of layers and shades into its fabric as it builds to its fateful climax. Stunningly shot and epic in scope, this is a gripping piece of genre cinema that looks nothing like it. Utterly unique.
Birds of Passage is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.