This article is adapted from AQ’s print issue on how to make Latin American cities better. Correction appended below.
In 2015, Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent became Colombia’s first Oscar-nominated film for its stark depiction of colonial aggression in the Amazon. In Pájaros de Verano (Birds of Passage), Guerra and co-director Cristina Gallego return with a more modern take on the pressures facing Latin America’s indigenous communities.
Set on Colombia’s La Guajira peninsula and shot mostly in the local Wayuu language, Pájaros de Verano tells the story of an indigenous family’s entanglement in the booming marijuana business of the 1970s and ’80s. The film follows Raphayet (José Acosta), who begins selling drugs to Peace Corps volunteers to earn the dowry money he needs to marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes). Raphayet’s venture helps him join Zaida’s family, but at a cost: Both find their devotion to Wayuu customs challenged, as a struggle for power and money imperils the soul of their community.
Pájaros de Verano’s colorful depictions of Wayuu dance and dress celebrate a culture rarely represented on a cinematic scale. But the film’s early dreaminess is quickly replaced by violence, as Raphayet’s business dealings and new wealth push his family deeper into greed and distrust. This dark turn provides plenty of drama, but may disappoint viewers expecting a more romantic portrayal of indigenous culture.
Amid a surplus of films and TV series about Colombia’s drug trade, Pájaros de Verano stands apart. Combining elements of Western and gangster movies with a dose of mysticism, the film neither demonizes nor romanticizes its protagonists. Guerra and Gallego offer little distraction from their characters’ downward spiral, but Pájaros de Verano is nonetheless a gripping tale, and an exploration of human nature under perplexing conditions that is fascinating to watch unfold.
AQ Rating: 7.5/10
Directed by: Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra
Written by: María Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde
Starring: Natalia Reyes, Carmiña Martínez, José Acosta
A previous version of this article referred to Embrace of the Serpent as Colombia’s first Oscar nominee. While it was the first film to be nominated, Colombia’s Catalina Sandino Moreno was nominated for best actress in 2004.
O’Boyle is a senior editor at AQ