Film still from Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano) (image courtesy of The Orchard)

“The grandmother, the mother, the uncle, the nephew, the grandson…,” chants an older woman painting red streaks on her daughter’s nose and cheekbones. “If there’s family, there’s respect. If there’s respect, there’s honor. If there’s honor, there’s the word. If there’s the word, there’s peace.” This recitation, upon the teenage girl’s induction into womanhood, launches the phantasmagoric epic Birds of Passage, the latest feature from Colombian director/producer Cristina Gallego and director/writer Ciro Guerra (best known for their 2015, Oscar-nominated film Embrace of the Serpent). For a film that David Edelstein called “part ethnographic documentary, part The Godfather,” the female-forward characters and the matrilineal Wayúu tribe the movie orbits have gone surprisingly under-explored by (predominantly white, male) film critics, as has the relevance of Gallego’s co-directorial role.

On the surface, Birds of Passage is a gangster movie about the origins of the Colombian drug industry from the late 1960s to the 1980s, with all the ritual and blood-splatter of a Coppola flick, the machismo and machine guns of Narcos, Cartel Land, and El Chapo. But as the men kill each other off (often hesitantly), the film pays tribute to the power — and eventual downfall — of the Wayúu women, especially matriarch Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez). “In the process of researching the role, I was looking for a strong woman who could be powerful politically, economically, and spiritually,” Gallego recounted in conversation. “All the histories about the Colombian drug trade have been told through the male point of view, but I couldn’t believe that in this space where women are so powerful, it could be possible that they would be excluded. Finally, we found one woman who was involved in the drug business. We went to the Wayúu people, and we asked about her, and we were able to meet with her. We grounded the character with what she told us.”

Birds of Passage co-director Cristina Gallego (photo by Mateo Contreras)

Both a business maverick and interpreter of her community’s dreams, Úrsula is as unflinching as she is intuitive, as ruthless as she is loyal. “You know why I’m respected?” she asks her prospective son-in-law, Rapayet (José Acosta), who sells marijuana to gringos to gather the dowry required to wed Úrsula’s daughter, Zaida (Natalia Reyes). When he assumes it’s Úrsula’s Spanish-speaking and dream-reading prowess, she shakes her head, saying in their Wayúu tongue, “It’s because I am capable of anything for my family and clan.”

Midway through the film, when her teenage son Leonídas (Greider Meza) drunkenly fires his gun into the sky and cocks it at fellow party-goers, it is Úrsula — not the spooked men around him — who takes the adolescent’s weapon and slaps him in the face. “Often in cinema, women are in supporting roles, decorations, or at the side of the men,” Gallego reflected. “Something I love about Úrsula is that she has very human reasons to do what she does. She really marks the limits for the others, and comes from a place of power and control. She would do anything for her family, even if she has to kill.”

Birds of Passage directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra (photo by Mateo Contreras)

This capacity to do anything at once morally anchors the film and fuels its violent final chapter, set off by an act of sexual predation strictly forbidden by Wayúu code. In the end, Úrsula’s downfall is nothing short of tragic: one of the few survivors of the drug war, she is not even “worth the bullet” it would take her captors to kill her. “She is destroyed completely at the end,” explained Gallego. “Already dead in a way. But she’s not avoiding the tragedy of what happened. She isn’t a victim. She is showing both sides of human nature.”

To Gallego — who felt “very identified with Úrsula, in [her] family role and business role with the movie” — the two sides of human nature are logic and intuition; though the latter is traditionally designated as the feminine side, the director insists that both faculties exist in men and women. “It’s a movie about the consequences of avoiding intuition,” she stressed. “About what happens when you have this knowledge that the Wayúu have, but avoid your instincts.”

Film still from Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano) (image courtesy of The Orchard)

Ultimately, Birds of Passage honors the complexity and humanity of this specific indigenous people, while also exposing the central role that the Western world played in igniting the conflict. “We as Latin Americans are the ones who put in the death and blood of all the wars, but the consumption of the drugs is principally in the US and Europe,” Gallego emphasized. “In this way, the movie is not just about tragedy, it’s about responsibility. On one side of the world, you see the hippies, the relaxation, the party life, but for the other side of the world, it’s a real matter of blood and revenge.”

As gruesome as it gets, the characters — male and female — who are slaughtered in this movie are consistently killed offscreen, capturing the horror of the violent act without indulging in the spectacle of suffering. In this way, Birds of Passage seems more invested in questions of honor than the lurid glory of the bloodbath. Given that the film marks Gallego’s first time in a directorial role, it’s worth considering whether the presence of a woman behind the camera had something to do with that.

Birds of Passage is directed by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego and it is playing in select theaters across the United States, including Film Forum and Nitehawk Prospect Park in New York, and Laemmle Glendale and AMC Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with regular contributions to Hyperallergic, Reverse Shot, The Hopkins Review, and The Riverfront Times, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the...