Wednesday 29 May 2019

Cristina (and Ciro)'s world: "Birds of Passage"

What first strikes the eye about Birds of Passage is the arid flatness of its landscape. Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, respectively the producer and director of 2015's remarkable Embrace of the Serpent, have left the jungles behind them and struck out for a vast sandy plain beneath a Sergio Leone sky in their native Colombia's Guajira region to reenact real-life events that took place between the 1960s and 1980s. In what may be an homage to The Godfather, the new film throws us into the middle of a wedding party, although Gallego and Guerra prove far less interested in the vows than the ritual: the face painting, the aggressive dances, the recounting of dreams. Who these participants are (and what those dreams mean) may initially be unclear, but we cannot fail to notice certain elementals, not least the wind, which - unchecked by trees or tall buildings - whips up the tents around the guests and the dust beneath their feet, and demands careful miking and mixing so as not to obscure any of the introductory dialogue. A storm threatens to blow in from one side of these frames, a plague from the other, and by the time Birds of Passage reveals its main dramatic activity to be a gangland feud centred on the region's drug trade, a map has been drawn and a scene set. Here is a place where there is no place to hide, as our vulnerable protagonist acknowledges late on, mired in the incongruously modernist palace he's built on these sands: "Nothing protects us any more." In the closing moments, the storm clouds burst, and those howling gales cede to the sound of rain washing away not just the blood this man has splattered across the land, but the remains of an entire empire.

The two hours separating the wedding party from these funeral rites serve as a vivid reminder that every country has its crime stories, passed from one generation to the next and out into the world; that every country has its underclasses, striving to engineer some social mobility for themselves with the application of muscle and firepower. (Those of us looking on from the cheap seats either get a crash course in running rackets, or are led to note again that crime rarely pays.) Birds is the Colombian equivalent of a GoodFellas or Gomorrah or one of the twenty-six British films about the Rettendon Range Rover murders, though - as with each of those titles - there are distinct regional variations, indicative of Colombia's mid-century status as a developing nation governed less by laws than superstition. For starters, it's a novel touch that our little Caesar, a dashing matinee idol-type going by the name of Rapayet (José Acosta), should first set out to source his product - an especially potent strain of marijuana - on the back of a donkey, and bring it back on goats; it is notable, and more than a little bit pointed, that his first clients should be Americans partying under the flag of the Peace Corps; and it is unusual that the first sign of trouble comes when a village elder points out that the same bird has landed on her hut three days in a row. There are impulses here that any Cagney or Corleone would recognise and act on, like Rapayet's decision to stamp down on a cocky underling who's started waving his gun around and getting ideas above his station, but neither Cagney nor Corleone had to reckon with the fallen associate coming back to haunt them in the form of a stork.

Such surreal auguries provide one link with Serpent, but that film carried us upriver into entirely uncharted territory, where time and space became relative constructs. Birds, a consolidation of these filmmakers' methods, adheres to established chronology, and to a rise-and-fall trajectory that is as old as Paul Muni, and quite possibly written in the stars. Nonetheless, the film has the benefit of decades of on-the-ground wisdom: its every role and strikingly composed frame - confirming Guerra and his cinematographer brother David among world cinema's foremost imagemakers - is filled by people you likely won't have seen before in these situations, and the movie's often startling freshness derives in large part from the freshness of their responses. The crone who stalks these characters' dreams has possibly the saddest face ever turned towards a camera; yet it's every bit as eyecatching when one hood peels a banana only to set the fruit aside and wolf down the skin. (The smile will vanish from his face after the hero's wayward nephew tosses him cash to repeat the trick with a dog turd. As metaphors for the dirty business of capitalism go, it's very much on-the-nose.) If Birds of Passage doesn't land among us with the propulsive narrative charge of, say, a City of God, that's attributable to the producer's circumspection Gallego has added to Guerra's evident talents, and the patience the pair display in staking out this territory, and its homes built on corpses. What holds us spellbound is the film's heightened sense of portraiture: how attentively it frames these figures within their environment, so that they can eventually haunt us as they themselves are haunted. A lot of crime movies wouldn't look out of place on the stages of La Scala or Glyndebourne; here's one fit to be exhibited in the Tate, or any Museum of Latin-American Art.

Birds of Passage is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

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