The fiftieth anniversary edition of Directors’ Fortnight opened yesterday with Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s Birds of Passage, and with one exception so far, critics are finding it a worthy followup to the filmmakers' award-winning Embrace of a Serpent (2015). The new film, which tracks the rise of a clan of Colombian Wayúu Native Americans in the international drug trade from the late 1960s to the early 80s, is garnering praise for its fresh take on an old formula. As Little White Lies’ David Jenkins notes in his review, Birds is “a rags-to-riches-to-rags narco saga we’ve seen a thousand time before. Yet it offers the rare chance of monitoring these timeworn machinations from the vantage of a tinpot cartel operation rather than the greedy, gak-snorting yanks.”
In a similar vein, the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang observes: “Like many a mob movie before it, Birds of Passage is predicated on the tension between family and business. But more than that, it’s a fascinatingly layered study in dueling tribal codes, the ways in which the rules of organized crime clash and intersect with Wayúu rituals and beliefs.”
Dispatching to the Guardian, Jordan Hoffman notes that “Guerra and Gallego wisely don’t get into too much of the production or distribution side of the drug business. Their attention is more on the family. While the ending does get into Scarface territory and the numerous weddings, funerals, and other ritualistic gatherings evoke the Godfather saga, the mob classic that most comes to mind is The Sopranos.”
Embrace of the Serpent, which Guerra directed and Gallego produced, won praise for its stellar black and white cinematography. Birds, which was shot in color, is also winning acclaim for its beautiful imagery. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer, for example, writes: “Working again with DP David Gallego, whose stunning widescreen compositions recall the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, the directors set the story against a vast backdrop of desert and sea, with characters often dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape as if their lives were in the hands of the gods.”
Variety’s Peter Debruge, too, focuses on Birds and a rich sensory experience. “Coupled with an immersive sound design—in which a steady background of insect noises blends seamlessly with the otherworldly vibration of unfamiliar instruments—the super-saturated visuals give the entire experience a heightened, hallucinatory quality, as if fellow South American director Alejandro Jodorowsky had applied his trippy sensibility to something of genuine ethnographic significance.”
The aforementioned outlier is filmmaker, programmer, and critic Blake Williams. “I’ve now seen three of Guerra’s pictures,” he writes for Filmmaker, “and I’m consistently struck by the disingenuous nature of his voice and perspective. While his projects are, on paper, noble, his characters never demonstrate inner lives beyond their cultural identity, rendering his portrayals of these peoples’ peculiarities and exotic traditions into something unsavory and exploitative.”
More from Wendy Ide (Screen), Eric Kohn (IndieWire, B), Eric Lavallée (Ioncinema, 3/5), Manuela Lazic (Vague Visages), Fabien Lemercier (Cineuropa), and Marc van de Klashorst (International Cinephile Society).
Update, 5/27: Notebook editor Daniel Kasman suggests that Gallego and Guerra’s “approach tends to use story as checklist plotting to illustrate consequences for decisions taken, rather than as waypoints structuring an exploration of the world—which might have been a fitting method if the film wasn’t so bold in its canvas.” And Kasman and Kurt Walker have conducted a video interview with the directors (14’44”).
The Orchard has taken North American distribution rights, reports Variety’s Ramin Setoodeh.
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