Birds of Passage follows the rise and fall of a Columbian drug lord, interweaving a Godfather-style story with the culture and folklore of Columbia’s indigenous clans. To reveal any more plot details would ruin the sense of tension and mystery the film builds gradually across its runtime. This is a story across decades, epic in scope and almost Shakespearean in its treatment of family tragedy. It is violent, grim, and absolutely frank in its depiction of indigenous culture and its interactions with the outside world. The scenes depicting clan rituals are among the most enchanting, especially because they are shot and lit just as the violence is. For a film with surreal dream sequences and folk magic, it is almost brutally realistic, which makes the violence and tension all the more powerful for the viewer. There is no romanticism and no glossing over death. Rather, the movie is an exploration of death and retribution, through the conflicting lenses of a protagonist who is at once attempting to be a good member of his clan and a rising drug kingpin. These two identities are at war throughout the film, and from the very first scene, the tension between the two worlds from whence they come is obvious.
There are no weak performances in this film, and though the protagonist is unemotive and silent for much of the film, he is fully realized and made incredibly compelling through subtle physical expressions and a great script. The best friend of the protagonist is a far more charismatic figure, reminiscent of the type of drug lords in films like Scarface and he too is brought to life through a memorable performance.
Birds of Passage is much more than a south-of-the-border drug epic. It will appeal to fans of arthouse, as well as more pulpy drug dramas, though its true strength is in its depiction of indigenous culture, and the way that the lives of individual people reflect broader cultural changes. Through its broad scope, compelling characters and unique setting, Birds of Passage feels as literary as it does cinematic, managing to pack the richness of a novel into a two hour run time.