The Orchard/125 min.
Releasing four years after their debut film, Abrazo de la Serpiente (English title: Embrace of the Serpent) the Colombian filmmaking duo Ciro Guerra and Cristina de Gallego are back for another look at their country’s indigenous population, this time with a twist to the traditional gangster film.
Focusing on the Wayuu people of the Guajira region, the story is set in the burgeoning years of the illicit drug trade in Colombia. But whereas an American audience might only know of or be interested in the exploits of Pablo Escobar and his ilk, the filmmakers take a look at how a Wayuu family gets involved and even on top, if only for a time. Told over the course of five chapters, in total spanning about a decade, the film chronicles the story of Rapayet, a Wayuu man with ambition than spans outside of his familial tradition, in the drug trade.
It’s hard not to compare debut filmmakers’ sophomore work to their debut, and I only do so now because I view these particular filmmakers as ones who are much more unique in terms of who they choose to focus their work on, compared to some of their contemporaries.
Whereas Abrazo had a clear definition of what its characters were after and effectively showed how the characters’ journeys affected them, Pajaros (from the film’s Spanish title: Pajaros de Verano) takes a different tact. Time skips between chapters, visuals and dialogue which allude to things audiences are not entirely privy to, and other aspects make the film a bit more of a challenge than the previous one. I don’t think this is necessarily a detriment to the movie, but, at least in the early parts of the film, it was slightly puzzling, having to piece together how the characters made a small drug empire after selling only a couple thousand pounds of weed. Of course, through visuals and dialogue, the pieces are there, and I am glad that the filmmakers trust the audiences enough to be able to think on their own, but a little bit more connection would have helped to clarify what happened during that particular time skip from the first couple chapters. As the film progresses, however, it’s clear that the directors took that path in order to get the characters where they need to be for the latter parts. Even though it doesn’t trip the film up, it still comes across as a slight misstep.
But the filmmakers more than make up for this early stumbling block with stellar filmmaking and writing. Supporting characters like Ursula (Carmina Martinez), Peregrino (Jose Vicente Cote), and the friend-turned-enemy Anibal (Juan Bautista Martinez) supply the story with its tension, as each tries to help or hinder Rapayet in his climb. Of important mention is the role of Moises, played by Jhon Narvaez, who plays a pivotal role in the beginning turns of the plot. Each character has their own unique personality. Ursula is calculating, willing to take risks as long as it furthers her clan’s prosperity. Peregrino is the cool uncle who wants the best for his nephew, Rapayet. Anibal is reluctant to join in on the trade, but once he gets a whiff of the money, it all changes. And lastly, there’s Moises, who is Rapayet’s catalyst for entering the illicit trade. An alijuna (outsider in the film’s presentation of the Wayuu language), Rapayet’s involvement with Moises greatly impacts the way of life for his clan, and it is in this way that the film most prominently subverts the gangster genre.
Great focus is placed on the Wayuu way of life. From courtship, to the power of dreams, to the importance of staying within the culture. As the power of money and illicit substances take hold on the various characters, we see respect for culture break down, and that becomes the continuous driving force of the conflict, up to the very last bullets that are fired. It’s refreshing that, in an Oscars year when the Mexican indigenous actress Yalitza Aparicio almost cinched Best Actress, that more filmmakers are getting in on these untold stories.