Even if you’ve seen a hundred drug epics, you’ve never seen quite one like Colombia’s ‘Birds of Passage’. It has the clammy fixations of ‘Scarface’ (drugs, guns, cash, bigger guns), the eerie glaze of ‘Aguirre’-era Herzog and a bit of acid western thrown in, but it’s also defiantly its own thing: a languid ride filled with odd omens that suddenly jags off in unexpected directions.
It follows Rapayet (José Acosta), a sleepily impassive member of the Wayúu people on the country’s Caribbean coast. Sparked by a chance meeting with weed-craving American gringos, he evolves over two decades into a drug baron, accruing power and bringing violence to his clan. But his glassy inertia – Scarface, he isn’t – allows more ruthless players to move into his space and it’s here that ‘Birds of Passage’ explodes into bloodletting on a near-Shakespearian scale.
Ciro Guerra, who co-directs with Cristina Gallego, was behind 2015’s spellbinding ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ and while this is a less trippy experience, it’s just as plugged into the friction caused when grasping modernity is injected into the bloodstream of an ancient culture. It’s also a morality play about how violence mutilates even the most enduring ways of life, giving its more visceral thrills a guilty edge. Leave your expectations at the door.