If there’s one word that should be blurbed on the poster and press materials for the Colombian import Birds of Passage, it would be “exotic.”
That sense of the unusual and often unexplainable extends to the film’s natural scenery — both the lush forests and cracked dirt deserts — as well as the people who populate those places and the circumstances in which they find themselves, providing a culturally transportive experience rarely seen in modern cinema.
Key to that generally accessible allure is a magnetic lead performance by José Acosta as Rapayet, a man of meager means and a tainted family legacy who seeks a better life through the emerging drug trade. His relatable ambition sets up a fascinating clash — propelled by greed and violence — between his indigenous Wayuu clan’s traditional values and encroaching capitalist ideals. The complex process of the players sorting out where their loyalties lie results in a film that feels like a true document created in another country without outside influences.
Cinephiles enchanted by the crisp B&W cinematography and lost-world access of the Amazon-set Embrace of the Serpent (2015) may have a minor epiphany discovering that it and Birds of Passage share a director in Ciro Guerra. Working with his then-wife Cristina Gallego as co-helmer, the pair shepherd this multigenerational drama from the late 1960s through the ’80s with visual and narrative confidence on par with Guerra’s Oscar-nominated predecessor.
One of several worthy shortlisted films ultimately not nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the recent Academy Awards, this rich work, the South Korean mystery Burning and the Danish thriller The Guilty make a strong collective case to expand the category and help make room for the less publicized but just-as-strong fare from underrepresented parts of the globe.
Perhaps an Eastern and Western Hemisphere subset or something similar could one day be established, but with that pipe dream currently on hold, serving Birds of Passage as a post-Oscars sorbet is a fine consolation prize.
Starts March 8 at Grail Moviehouse