Birds of Passage

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra's Birds of Passage is a fresh take on the gangster genre

Film Review by Thomas Atkinson | 08 May 2019
  • Bird of Passage
Film title: Birds of Passage
Director: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra
Starring: Carmiña Martínez, José Acosta, Natalia Reyes, José Vicente
Release date: 17 May
Certificate: 15

The biggest masterstroke in Birds of Passage, from Colombian filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego (respectively the director and producer of the mesmerising Embrace of the Serpent) is how it echoes other people’s past victories.

There’s a recognisable strain of gangster movie – the Shakespearean kind, where illustrious young men rise to power and fall from grace, fighting against the passage of time until the current finally pulls them under – and the film draws from the genre’s history and tropes. Revenge killings, sit-downs, family hotheads: it’s all here, though it’s undoubtedly shot with more earthiness and florid sensuality than most crime dramas can muster. The stench of death and dirt lingers on the frame, and the taciturn register of the film, even in its louder moments, makes it feel as though it were a waking nightmare.

In that nightmare, however, is the key to Gallego and Guerra’s admirable gamble with their familiar tale. Though the story of Wayuu drug-runner Rapayet (José Acosta) helping his family’s rise to being an exalted criminal operation is very Sopranos, his tribe’s native roots complicate the material. Their rituals and traditions, which struggle to stay in place as Anglo-American fashion, tech and attitudes flood into Colombia, warn that Rapayet’s temptation by wealth will bring the family down and destroy their way of life.

Embodying that tension is Rapayet’s mother-in-law, Úrsula, played by a monumental Carmiña Martinez. Torn between the love for her daughter, Rapayet’s wife Zaida and the native values she has upheld for decades, she desperately occupies a shrinking middle ground while the seeds of criminality spread like a virus in her community. Slowly, Hawaiian shirts, modernist houses and fancy cars creep into the picture – and the guns get larger. By the end, we’re left wondering whether Rapayet’s soul isn’t the only thing lost when prosperity and tradition collide.

Released 17 May by Curzon Artificial Eye; certificate 15