Imagine “The Sopranos” with indigenous Colombians and you get a sense of what’s afoot in “Birds of Passage,” a soulful and hard-hitting crime drama that takes gangster tropes to a new and fascinating place.
Directors Ciro Guerra (“Embrace of the Serpent”) and Cristina Gallego — who divorced during the making of this film — begin in the 1960s in Colombia, specifically in the Guajira region in the north, home to the indigenous Wayuu people. For one clan, the matriarch Úrsula (Carmiña Martinez) who maintains the traditions of her people.
Úrsula’s the one who advises the young Zaina (Natalia Reyes) before she hears from the suitors seeking to marry her. She’s the one who carries the talisman that protects the family. She’s the one who interprets the dreams that foretell her family’s future. And, jumping ahead a bit, she’s the one who orders a hit on a drug-dealing outsider.
It’s the Americans, specifically a group of hippie-ish Peace Corps volunteers, who put Úrsula’s people on the bloody path of drug dealing. The Americans hear the Colombians have marijuana, and Zaina’s new husband Rapayet (José Acosta) arranges to sell some to them. He soon jumps into the lucrative business of selling a lot of marijuana to Americans, borrowing from his uncle Anibal () to get a foothold, and partnering with his friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez) — an outsider to the Wayuu, an “Alijunas” — to sell bundles of pot and fly it north to America.
Soon Rayapet and Moisés are rolling in money, but with that comes recklessness. When Moisés starts waving guns around, and killing people who get in his way, Úrsula orders the reluctant Rayapet to kill his business partner.
The story moves forward to Rayapet, Zaina and their kids living in luxury, with Úrsula living with them. But there is trouble, when a drunken cousin Leonidas (Greider Meza) commits a grave offense against Anibal’s family. Because of pride and an inability to apologize, a gang war becomes inevitable.
Gallego and Guerra, who handed their story idea to screenwriters Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, work in the classic themes of the gangster saga. Small crimes grow to big ones, just as money and power grow into callous arrogance. People talk of the family — in this case, the ways of the Wayuu clans — but those values become corrupted and distorted by greed.
“Birds of Passage” boasts a talented ensemble, including some fascinating character actors — none more intriguing as José Vicente Cote as Peregnino, the craggy “word messenger” who acts as an envoy between the warring families. The cast carries the burden of a people who put their tradition in conflict with their ambition, and who must live with — and die because of — the consequences.
‘Birds of Passage’
Opened February 13 in select cities; opens Friday, March 8, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably R for gun violence, nudity, sexual content, drug content and language. Running time: 125 minutes; in Wayuu and Spanish, with subtitles.