Drug-trade saga takes visionary flight in Birds of Passage

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      Starring José Acosta. In Spanish and Wayuu, with English subtitles. Rated 14A

      A drug-cartel origin story is interwoven with Indigenous ethnography in the visually rich Birds of Passage, which takes some familiar elements to startling new, and very old, places.

      Things start simply, in 1968, with the coming-of-age of Zaida, a young woman played by Natalia Reyes, one of the few professionals in the large cast. (In fact, she’ll costar in the next Terminator movie.) The ritual, involving seclusion followed by extravagant courtship dancing, pertains to the Wayuu, nomadic people who inhabited Colombia’s dusty, far-northern Guajira peninsula before the Spanish arrived, and never really surrendered. In fact, they still refer to non-Natives as alijunas, very roughly translated as “strangers who break shit”.

      Clannishness is the organizing principle here, and Zaida’s incredibly tough mother (Carmiña Martínez) has to climb some family trees before even entertaining the notion of outsider Rapayet (José Acosta) asking for the girl’s hand. To discourage the dude, she demands an extravagant dowry, including whole herds of goats and cattle. He’s serious, though, and enlists a mestizo pal (Jhon Narváez) to help raise some quick capital.

      Both notice that American Peace Corps volunteers, avoiding the Vietnam War while playing guitars and skinny-dipping, have a bottomless appetite for marijuana. Rapayet’s relatives grow the green stuff, and it’s just a matter of baling it up and swapping for gringo dollars. As things get more systematized, with small planes and increasingly weaponized meeting places, you see the cartels taking shape, with conflicts forming along ethnic lines. As people get greedy, their loyalties are tested and twisted.

      Extended series like Narcos and The Sopranos have dug deep into the pathology of drug-fuelled clan warfare. Codirectors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra—she’s a veteran producer and he made the spooky Amazonian tale Embrace of the Serpent—are more interested in the interface between conflicting cultures than in the crime story. The Scarface stuff takes over anyway, and the tale loses some of its own roots in the mounting body count. At just over two hours, a kind of formal stiffness sets in, and viewers may not feel like rooting for anyone in particular. The wide-screen images are arresting, however, and the movie helps keep remote places, people, and history alive.