Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano)

Ciro Guerra on the set with Cristina Gallego

Cristina Gallego

BIRDS OF PASSAGE (Pájaros de verano)               B-                   
Colombia  Mexico  Denmark  (125 mi)  2018 ‘Scope   d:  Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego

Returning to the same territory where he filmed THE WIND JOURNEYS (2009), this is a film that attempts to straddle two worlds, struggling to remain faithful to the Wayúu Nation, an indigenous Indian tribe living autonomously in the northern desert province of Guajira, Columbia, using an oral history along with a tradition of recognizing the significance of signs and symbols from dreams as being sacred and truthful, able to decipher omens and superstitions, yet it also adheres to conventional Western traditions when it comes to storytelling, creating an endlessly gloomy succession of acts of revenge, becoming idiotic and monotonous after a while, as the reprehensible acts giving rise to these events border on sheer stupidity.  That makes it difficult to understand all the praise heaped upon this film, made by the same director who created the enticingly original black and white film, 2015 Top Ten List #8 Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente), yet this film lacks the unique vision and power of his earlier work.  Borrowing from Western models of bloody gangland retribution undermines what could otherwise be a markedly poetic attempt to express an indigenous culture strictly in their own terms.  By introducing the Narco drug trade into their remote and isolated communities, the film recreates metaphorically what actually happened from the 1960’s to the 80’s in rural farmlands across Colombia, as families turned against families due to the influx of huge sums of cash, creating a distorted imbalance to their natural world, with the film suggesting the drug trade literally destroyed indigenous communities that had survived for centuries, fending off Spanish Conquistadors, the British Navy, waves of pirates, and various Colombian governments trying to control them.  Yet in a few short decades they were wiped off the map, gone, but not forgotten, as the filmmakers attempt to pay tribute to their lives.  In revisiting the ghosts of the past, this allegorical film resembles the African filmmaking of Sembène’s CEDDO (1977), Cissé’s YELEEN (1987), or Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014), especially the tribes living in the vast emptiness of the desert, dressed in colorful flowing robes, where the attainment of goats and cows provides family status and wealth, with a tradition of “word messengers” acting as good will ambassadors between tribes, men and women who come and go in peace, resembling the African tradition of griots, oral storytellers who recount the rich history of each tribe, passing on knowledge to each new generation.           

Shot in bright, saturated colors by David Gallego in 35mm, mostly in natural light, the film starts innocently enough with a vividly ritualistic dance ceremony, featuring Natalia Reyes as Zaida in a blazing red dress with extended sleeves, announcing her entry into womanhood, daughter of the tribe’s powerful matriarch Úrsula Pushaima (Carmiña Martínez), where she is viewed as a coveted prize.  Rapayet (José Acosta), from a neighboring tribe, takes notice, but to win her hand Úrsula demands a king’s ransom to pay her dowry, 30 goats and 20 cows, far more than any young person could afford, including the impoverished Rapayet, a coffee producer raised by his uncle Peregrino (José Vicente Cote), who is a skilled word messenger with a sacred duty.  Undeterred, Rapayet is enterprising, venturing into a business proposition with the help of a friend, Moisés (Jhon Narváez), who is something of a loose cannon, yet they run into a group of Americans who have made their presence felt in the region working with the Peace Corps, spewing anti-communist rhetoric while in search of local marijuana (which the film substitutes for cocaine trafficking, leaving out the leftist guerilla groups and right wing paramilitaries).  With the help from his uncle Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez) and his mountaintop farm, a profitable business relationship is established that will not only pay Zaida’s dowry, but make him the most powerful drug lord in the region.  While Úrsula views him with suspicion, especially his willingness to deal with alijunas (outsiders), nonetheless she agrees to the marriage.  But the stain of Western capitalism has been introduced, quickly infiltrating through the ranks, where the necessity of protective lethal weapons becomes commonplace, with a cadre of soldiers guarding both Rapayet and Aníbal wherever they go, while Úrsula builds a gargantuan white palace in the barren emptiness of the desert landscape, an almost obscene sight, like a fortified bank appearing out of nowhere, showing signs of corrosion to the family traditions.  When Moisés disrupts a deal gone bad, shooting a couple of Americans, a shockwave of blatant dishonor must be answered for, yet a corrupting influence is released instead.  Perhaps even more inexplicably, Úrsula’s reprehensible younger son Leonidas (Gredier Meza) turns out to be a sociopathic menace (as if Scorsese’s Joe Pesci has somehow been transported from the streets of Brooklyn to the plains of the Wayúu tribe), utterly spoiled, completely out of control, a drunken misfit used to getting his way who violates all known moral boundaries.  His toxic influence sends both families into a perpetual gang war from which they never recover.

While the Wayúu tribe held onto their traditions living in close-knit tribes, protecting themselves against the encroaching influences of the outside world, the film offers some insight into the way they collectively make group decisions, allowing dreams and superstitions to influence their behavior, believing in ghosts and a communion with the dead, incorporating many of the aesthetic and ritualistic aspects of their culture, where dreams seamlessly flow into their existing reality, with the director allowing bits and pieces of magical realism to creep into the scenes.  Significantly, the great grandmother of famed Colombian author and Nobel prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez was a member of the Wayúu tribe, where his brilliant and wildly imaginative novel 100 Years of Solitude exposed the world to this exact same kind of hallucinogenic viewpoint (with the matriarch of the Buendía family also named Úrsula), where in the blink of an eye another close-knit family vanishes from the face of the earth.  The co-directors Guerra and Gallego, a married couple who divorced during the production of the film, are themselves outsiders to this indigenous community, who in fact lead nomadic lives of extreme economic deprivation, forced to parched desert lands and inhospitable conditions so precarious that the geographic region is associated with dire poverty, with thousands of children dying from malnutrition, circumstances this film completely ignores, instead creating a mythical universe that’s more acceptable to western audiences.  Despite the best intentions, the film still exploits a culture that has been utterly marginalized and ignored, where the depiction onscreen is nothing at all like what they’re used to.  Nonetheless, the film uses a healthy dose of non-professionals in the cast (with 30% of the crew drawn from the Wayúu tribe), with no single character ever identifiable as the lead, moving back and forth from one to the other, instead viewed collectively, much like tribal culture, so outside of the matriarchal power of Carmiña Martínez as Úrsula (with 30 years of experience in the theater), none of the other characters have the ability to hold the screen, which contributes to a certain trance-like flatnesss in the performances that ends up distancing viewers from the reality of the depicted world.  Told in 5 acts, each identified through a folklore style song structure, the title curiously comes about fifteen minutes into the film, introducing the characters in their tribal element ahead of time.  With the introduction of tank-sized trucks armed with machine guns speeding through the desert in a cloud of dust, the film becomes increasingly violent, growing more and more pessimistic, with some resembling the walking dead before it’s all over, yet it’s hard not to be mystified by a grotesque outlandishness in the extreme levels of outrageous behavior, where despite all initial pledges to honor the family, those promises are quickly broken in the pursuit of a corrupting power hell-bent on exacting revenge, even if that means destroying themselves in the process.  It’s an unsettling experience, a cautionary tale that feels more like a Greek tragedy that’s been filtered through a western genre stylization, a kind of indigenous spaghetti western that goes spectacularly haywire.     

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