Birds of Passage, from Ciro Guerra and Christina Gallego (Embrace of the Serpent, 2014), is a drug cartel story, encompassing many of the genre’s story tropes, but remarkably fresh thanks to its milieu and tone. Inspired by the historical record of two indigenous Columbian families embarking on selling marijuana to Americans from the late 60s until the early 80s, the film avoids sensationalism, humor, flashbacks, voice-over and all the other conventions laid out in GoodFellas and copied ever since, instead opting for stillness, gravitas and cultural integrity.
These families feel as protected by highly-prized necklaces, as well as a particular talisman, as they do by guns; debts are paid in goats and cows rather than cash. Dreams are given the weight of premonitory evidence, and “word messengers” carry the implicit protection of “made men” in Scorsese’s mafia. Against the dry desert landscapes and spoken in authentic indigenous languages by a range of professional actors and first-timers, the film, although absolutely cinematic, feels archival and authentic, as well as other worldly. Its themes and story arcs are simultaneously universal and thoroughly specific. This unique film will be easily appreciated not only by the Scarface completist, but the cultural tourist and art-house anthropologist as well.