Birds of Passage — from directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra — is a masterpiece. Set in Colombia and spanning the years 1969 to 1980, Birds is divided into five sections, songs really, that recount the tale of ancient rituals, tight-knit tribes, and the sudden and violent encroachment of capitalism thanks to the profitability of the drug trade.
Like most stories depicting the rise and fall of an empire, it begins with an attraction. Specifically, between the young Zaida (Natalia Reyes) and the bachelor Rapayet (José Acosta) at Zaida’s coming out ceremony. With a flurry of images, Gallego and Guerra invoke Dante’s first encounter with Beatrice in Vita Nuova: “Here is a God stronger than I who come to rule over me.” But Rapayet lacks the dowry necessary to wed Zaida, so he teams with Moises (Jhon Narváez) to hustle booze, then coffee and, finally, marijuana to the Americans so he can purchase the goats, cattle, and necklaces required for Zaida’s hand.
Once turned on, Rapayet and Moises find that the marijuana trade is like a fire hose out of control. Suddenly the hills and deserts of Columbia are flooded with money, money not easily turned off or controlled. Riches are accumulated fast, but violence is faster, and an empire built upon sand threatens to destroy millenniums worth of ritual and culture.
To reiterate, Birds of Passage is a masterpiece. It’s as if Gallego and Guerra managed to cram all of Godfather I and II into a two-hour movie, decorate it with surrealistic imagery, and infuse it with flavors so familiar they must be authentic. Sure, you’ve seen a hundred movies about crime families; you’ve probably even seen hundreds more about the perils of drug trafficking. But not like this. It’s like a song so familiar you swear you’ve heard it before. But you haven’t, and now you can’t forget it.