Sundance Review: Birds of Passage

Score:  A-

Director:  Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra

Cast:  Carmiña Martinez, José Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Juan Batista Martínez

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rated: NR

We know how this story goes: young hustler works his way up in the crime world. He builds an empire, then sees it all come crashing down. But as with any story, it's the telling that matters. And you haven't seen it told like this.

Birds of Passage was Colombia's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars, even making the shortlist. But even not having seen all the five nominees, I'm pretty confident in saying they screwed up by not nominating this (to say of nothing of South Korea's Burning). This is an epic about the corruption of U.S. influence, family rivalries, the loss of tradition and destructive force of greed.

Rapayet is an ambitious guy from a poor family. He wants to marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes), the daughter of a Wayuu clan. He can't afford the dowry, and hasn't impressed the matriarch (Carmiña Martinez, in an impressively layered performance that should have gotten her some awards attention). But when he and his low-life buddy Moisés (Jhon Narvárez) hear of some visiting Americans looking to score weed, a lightbulb goes off over Rapayet's head, and he joins forces with his cousin Aníbal (Juan Batista Martínez), enriching both of them, but making them increasingly paranoid, and making their acolytes harder to control.

Things reach a fever pitch when his nephew Leonidas (Greider Meza) starts to think his wealth means he can do anything, including humiliating the family bodyguards and assaulting the daughter of Aníbal. That starts a brutal war that only Rapayet seems interested in stopping. But the devastation continues, as revenge becomes all-consuming.

What's special about this version of the rise and fall of the gangster is how specific it is. Much of the film is in local dialects, with a major focus on traditional beliefs and rituals. But the tragedy is still the same in any language.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.