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Review: Engaging narco-thriller ‘Birds of Passage’ has ruffled some feathers

By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

On the road to the Oscar shortlist for best foreign language film, the Colombian drug drama “Birds of Passage” has picked up a number of smallish awards and nominations, and it has ruffled some feathers along the way.

Although it ultimately didn’t make the cut as one of this year’s five nominees, some publications, including the New Yorker, have lavished praise on the film, which tells the story of an indigenous Wayuu clan whose traditional values are corrupted by the lure of outside drug money. (Intriguingly, former husband-and-wife filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego – whose previous collaborations include the gorgeous, Amazon-set black-and-white drama “The Embrace of the Serpent” – divorced while making “Birds.”)

At the same time as the film has charmed reviewers, however, some parties have found fault with its depiction of the roots of the Colombian drug trade. Although vividly rendered in images and richly nuanced in narrative, “Birds” traces the origins of Colombia’s illicit drug trade to the pernicious influence of – wait for it – the Peace Corps. In an essay published by the Hollywood Reporter, former Peace Corps volunteers Maureen Orth, Abby Wasserman and Arleen Cheston take issue with this particular narrative, an old and controversial story line that has been promulgated before on film (for example, in the 2004 film “El Rey”).

The Peace Corps, for what it’s worth, plays only a small part in “Birds,” and its role takes the form of longhair hippies who are shown purchasing 1,200 pounds of weed in 1968 – not for personal consumption, as one might imagine, but for export to the United States. Though clumsily caricatured, these putative villains hardly amount to anything in the larger story, which properly centers on a Wayuu man named Rapayet (José Acosta), who is the liaison for this transaction. Rapayet quickly becomes a regular pot middleman – and then something of a cartel boss – at first to simply raise enough money for his dowry to his bride, Zaida (Natalia Reyes).

But then greed takes over.

“Birds of Passage” – whose title refers both to the planes used to ferry drugs out of Colombia and to the role of actual birds in the symbolic life of the Wayuu people – eventually becomes a somewhat conventional thriller involving competing families and turf wars. At the same time, it’s made considerably less familiar because of the distinctive culture of the Wayuu, who are presented in a mostly respectful, engrossing and even poetic way.

The Wayuu’s matrilineal society, for instance, is personified by Zaida’s mother (Carmiña Martínez), a force of nature – but not necessarily one for good, as her stance toward her son-in-law’s trafficking is, as they say, complicated. Another fascinating character is Rapayet’s uncle (José Vicente Cote), a character known as “word messenger,” whose function in Wayuu society is the resolution of disputes through diplomacy, and an elaborate system of moral debt and payback.

And the disputes are many, leading to some grisly resolutions.

It’s a watchable tale, yet it’s also hard to know just how much truth there is in the presentation of the Wayuu, whose presence in the film at times seems more picturesque than plausible. Orth and company also take exception to the portrayal of the Wayuu as well, calling the film “an indigenous ‘Scarface’ without the pretension of historical accuracy.”

And maybe it is. But “Scarface” was a lot of fun to watch. This one isn’t quite as fun, but it is a fascinating portrait of moral decay, if also as far from a documentary as you can get.

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