Gangster films are one of the most clearly-blueprinted genres of fiction. From "Scarface" to "The Godfather" saga to Netflix's "Narcos" series, we usually start with a protagonist outside the criminal life though very aware of or close to it, suddenly tempted by something beyond their means to enter that world. Economic and professional growth follows; loss, revenge and grudges do too. A moment of reckoning usually comes near the end, with the protagonist dying or being caught at a personal low. We can commonly include other stock characters: the wild one that is close to the protagonist but dangerous to all due to their explosive nature, a consigliere father figure for guidance, the betrayer. The uniqueness of "Birds of Passage" is not in doing anything meta or original with this blueprint, but rather in following it in its own terms, bringing a lot of heavy themes along for the ride.
The movie, set between 1965 and 1980, is mostly spoken in the Wayuu language of the indigenous people of the same name of northern Colombia's La Guajira region and features several actors of that ethnic group, with the characters' decisions never being free from their culture and norms. This is clear from the start, where we are introduced to Zaida, a young woman of a high-standing Wayuu clan. When Zaida is allowed to leave her traditional one-year seclusion as she's now considered fit for marriage, she catches the eye of Rapayet. A Wayuu man of a lower family standing, Rapayet decides that Zaida is to be his wife, either because of the possibilites offered by her family prestige or out of genuine attraction (most likely a mixture of both).
Zaida's hand will only be available with a large dowry of tens of heads of cattle. Rapayet sees the opportunity to obtain the dowry by buying marihuana from his cousin and selling it to a drug-dealing U.S. hippie. These familiar relations (mostly built out of distrust to non-Wayuu) and traditional norms are what set this story apart. As business deals go wrong and Rapayet finds himself forced to kill his best friend and original business partner, things rapidly escalate in the traditional gangster movie narrative (with some elements of films like "Blue Ruin", with the stubborness and sheer willpower that goes into eye-for-an-eye family grudges) and the protagonists' completely human greed leads to major change. Designer watches become more fashionable than loincloths. Hammocks give way to beds. Huts give way to mansions. Wayuunaiki gives way to Spanish.
The commentary is strong in this movie; we have the obvious context of Indigenous peoples abandoning their ways of life in favor of the mainstream, Colombia's foreign and self-image being so influenced by drug traffic, the little-seen developed-world consumers of these drugs. My favorite however, is the simple flawed humanity in the characters. It is very easy to look at cultures in real danger of extinction and place them in a pedestal, but "Birds of Passage" intelligently avoids this by portraying these Wayuu people to be as greedy, ambitious, lustful and definitely not above using their cultural norms to get their own self-interested way, as any other group. In the "moment of reckoning", a group of Wayuu elders declares to Rapayet's family matriarch: "you no longer live like Wayuu". It is true... but they DID LIVE that way. They lived the Wayuu life and CHOSE the alternative, clearly showing the process by which not only Indigenous peoples, but most people are CHOOSING a more globalized, standarized way of life, for better and worse.
"Birds of Passage" is the perfect example of this, it chooses a well-known Western narrative path and follows it down to a t. Along the way, we get just enough "flavor" for it to feel unique. The Wayuu customs, including songs, are not the only element used here, as some magical realism imagery that seems pulled right out of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" makes an appearance, usually in the context of Wayuu supernatural beliefs, to remind us of one of Colombia's most important cultural contributions to humanity. Mentioning this "flavor" is in no way meant to be disparaging, since it is the single best and most important element of the movie. This is not an artificial flavoring agent, but rather a slow-cooked, organically-sourced, complex, balanced and deep flavor, the kind that will linger on for a while.