Category Archives: True Crime

SIFF 2022: Sweetheart Deal (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

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Dopesick and finding temporary solace from an RV-dwelling man of means by no means dubbed “The Mayor of Aurora Avenue”, four sex workers (Kristine, Sara, Amy, and Tammy) strive to keep life and soul together as they walk an infamous Seattle strip. With surprising twists and turns, Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller’s astonishingly intimate portrait is the most intense, heart-wrenching, and compassionate documentary I have seen about Seattle street life since Streetwise.

Blu-ray reissue: Prince of the City (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)

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Prince of the City (Warner Archive)

Sidney Lumet directed this powerful drama based on the true story of NYC narcotics detective Robert Leuci (“Daniel Ciello” in the film), whose life got turned upside down after he agreed to cooperate with a special commission. Treat Williams delivers his finest performance as the conflicted cop, who is initially promised he will never have to “rat” on any of his partners in the course of the investigation. But you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with “good intentions”. Superb performances from all in the sizable cast (especially Jerry Orbach). Lumet co-adapted the screenplay from Richard Daley’s book with Jay Presson Allen.

Warner Archive has a habit of skimping on the extras; this release is no exception, but this is the best-looking print of it I’ve seen since I first caught it in a theater back in 1981.

Blu-ray reissue: The Krays (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 17, 2021)

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The Krays (Second Sight Films; Region “B” locked)

“Mummy loves you, you little monsters.” Peter Medak’s 1990 biopic about England’s notorious Kray brothers is a unique hybrid of a “gangster movie” and a “woman’s film”.

First-time actors Gary and Martin Kemp (also known as the guitarist and bassist for Spandau Ballet) are nothing short of astonishing as Ronald and Reggie Kray, the fearsome East End gangsters who ruled London’s underworld in the 1960s-but it is playwright Samuel Beckett’s favorite leading lady Billie Whitelaw who really owns the film as the twins’ beloved Mum, Violet.

Born in 1933, the twins form an unusually intense, almost psychic lifelong bond with their mother that pushes their older brother Charlie and milquetoast father to the background. To say that this non-shrinking Violet is a “force of nature” is understatement. She loves her “boys” but suffers no fools gladly.

What is most interesting to me about Philip Ridley’s sharp screenplay is how many juicy monologues it contains for a number of strong female characters (again, something you don’t usually see in such traditionally male-centric gangster flicks). This observation is delivered by Violet’s friend Rose (played by Susan Fleetwood):

It was the women who had the war – the real war. The women were left at home in the shit, not sitting in some sparkling plane or gleaming tank […] Men! Mum’s right. They stay kids all their fucking lives. And they end up heroes – or monsters. Either way they win. Women have to grow up. If *they* stay children, they become victims.

Make no mistake, when the film goes gangster, it goes all the way. In fact, Medak received criticism for scenes of brutality (the Krays had an oddly anachronistic predilection for using swords to torture and/or dispense with their rivals).

While those scenes are gruesome, as director Medak points out in a new interview conducted for the Blu-ray there is much less violence in The Krays than you see in a typical American mob film (interestingly, Medak and Whitelaw knew the Krays).

I think this is an underrated gem ripe for discovery by a new audience (it’s far more compelling than the muddled 2015 Krays biopic Legend, with Tom Hardy playing the twins).

Second Sight Films does a great job on the restoration and image transfer. I have a minor quibble on the audio; it’s very clean and crisp, but I had to use subtitles because I got tired of having to ride my volume control (while the annoying fluctuations between hushed dialog and blaring action scenes/music cues are a given in contemporary films, for the life of me I don’t know why reissue studios are compelled to go for that same dynamic when remixing audio tracks of older films).

In addition to the aforementioned interview with the director, extras include a new audio commentary by film historian Scott Harrison, a new interview with producer Ray Burdis, and a softcover book with several new essays.

Blu-ray reissue: Memories of Murder (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 10, 2021)

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Memories of Murder (The Criterion Collection)

Buoyed by its artful production and knockout performances, this visceral and ultimately haunting 2003 police procedural from director Joon-ho Bong (Parasite) really gets under your skin. Based on the true story of South Korea’s first known serial killer, it follows a pair of rural homicide investigators as they search for a prime suspect.

Initially, they seem bent on instilling more fear into the local citizenry than the lurking killer, as they proceed to violate every civil liberty known to man. Soon, however, the team’s dynamic is tempered by the addition of a more cool-headed detective from Seoul, who takes the profiler approach. The film doubles as a fascinating glimpse into modern South Korean society and culture.

The 4K digital restoration (supervised by cinematographer Kim Hyung Ku and approved by the director) and new 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack makes my Palm DVD copy superfluous. There are several commentary tracks; two from 2009 with the director and crew members, and a new one with critic Tony Rayns. Other extras include a new interview with Bong about the real-life crime spree the film was based on, a 2004 “making of” doc, deleted scenes, a 1994 student film by Bong, and much more.

Tribeca 2021: Last Meal (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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There is a very clever bait-and-switch in this 18-minute short. The bait is food porn…the camera lingers over glossy, hyper-stylized, TV ad-ready close-ups of mouth-watering cheeseburgers, fries, steaks, pizzas, tacos, etc. as the narrator rattles off itemized “last meal” requests by death row inmates (some more notorious than others). But faster than you can say “Where’s the beef?” you find yourself steeping in the gruesomeness of it all. Co-writer/directors Marcus McKenzie and Daniel Pricipe literally and figuratively give you food for thought regarding the ethics of capital punishment.

SIFF 2021: Heist of the Century (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2021)

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A stoner heist comedy based on a true story? Stranger things have happened. In 2006, a team of robbers hit the Banco Rio in Acassuso, Argentina. They took hostages, stole $8 million in valuables and cash and escaped in a boat despite being surrounded by 200 police. They ordered pizza and soda for the hostages, sang happy birthday to one of them, and left behind toy guns and a note saying they stole “money, not love.” If that isn’t a film begging to be made, I don’t know what is. Director Ariel Winograd and screenwriters Alex Zito and Fernando Araujo have fashioned one of the most entertaining genre entries Elmore Leonard never wrote. My festival favorite so far.

Get the papers, get the papers: The Irishman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 30, 2019)

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If I didn’t know better, I’d wager Martin Scorsese’s new crime drama, The Irishman was partially intended to be a black comedy. That’s because I thought a lot of it was so …funny.

Funny how?

It’s funny, y’know, the …the story. It’s funny. OK, the story isn’t “ha-ha” funny; there’s all these mob guys, and there’s a lot of stealing and extorting and shooting and garroting. It’s just, y’know, it’s … the way Scorsese tells the story and everything. Like my cousin.

True story. I have this cousin. Technically 2nd cousin, I think (my dear late mother’s 1st cousin…however the math works). Due to our age spread he’s always seemed more like an uncle to me. He’s a character. A funny guy …always with the jokes. A modne mensch.

At any rate, he’s Brooklyn born-and-raised (as was my mother). Earlier this week he and I had a little exchange going on Facebook regarding The Irishman. I had posted about how excited I was that the film had finally dropped on Netflix following its limited 2-month theatrical run.

I know what you’re thinking: “Bad movie critic! Shame!” But why schlep to the theater, with the parking and the ticket prices and the overpriced stale popcorn…and besides I’m already paying extra for Netflix on top of my $200 Comcast bill so dammit I will have my own private screening, on my couch thank you very much.

Anyway, my cousin commented that The Irishman was great, and that “the 3½ hours went by very quickly”. Knowing that portions of the film’s narrative (which is steeped in mob history) take place in NYC, I half-teasingly replied to him:

“I’m guessing that a lot of Scorsese’s period mob films are kind of like a stroll down memory lane for anyone who grew up in NYC back in the day?”

To which he wrote back:

“The Gambinos were one block up on Carroll Street about six blocks from us …and we learned at an early age to stay away from any men wearing suits with a newspaper folded underneath their arm.”

That cracked me up. I thought it was, y’know …funny. But then he followed up with this:

“These men in suits usually had a schlom [sic] rolled up in the newspaper and were on the way to bust up somebody who was a slow payer. If they had to come back the 2nd or 3rd time they usually beat up the man’s wife, now we had two things to worry about.”

The uh, “scholm”? He must have been reading my mind, adding:

“The schlom was a piece of pipe or a heavy piece of cable-when you saw these guys you just walked the other way.”

Oh. That’s not so funny. It’s just, y’know, the way my cuz tells the story and everything.

One thing’s for sure-after 50 years of film-making Martin Scorsese knows how to tell a story and everything. And while it is not the only subject he makes films about, nor is the subject his exclusive domain, few living filmmakers have his particular flair for telling stories about the Mob; specifically for the way he pulls the viewer inside the heads of people who feel perfectly at home living in the shadows of a completely amoral universe.

Despite the consistently visceral, in-your-face nature of his crime dramas, Scorsese once commented “…there is no such thing as pointless violence” on-screen. “Deep down you want to think that people are really good—but the reality outweighs that.” C’est la vie.

I know this sounds weird, but there’s something oddly reassuring about tucking into a Scorsese film that features some of the most seasoned veterans of his “mob movie repertory” like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel; akin to putting on your most well-worn pair of comfy slippers. And with the addition of Al Pacino …fuhgeddaboudit!

Slipping into place from the get-go like the natural bookend to a triptych that began with Scorsese’s 1990 “true-crime”-inspired New York mob drama Goodfellas and continued with Casino, his 1995 film set in the mob underworld of 1970s Vegas, The Irishman ambitiously paints an even broader historical canvas of underworld chronology; from Albert Anastasia to Sam Giancana to “Crazy Joe” Gallo and Joe Columbo. And that’s just a warm-up. Maybe you find out who ordered the Jimmy Hoffa hit. And possibly JFK (such elements of the narrative reminded me of James Ellroy’s novel American Tabloid).

At the center of this swirling, blood-spattered history is “the Irishman”-Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Mafia hitman who, if his real-life counterpart’s “confessions” are to be believed (as documented in Charles Brandt’s non-fiction source book I Heard You Paint Houses, adapted here by Steve Zaillian) is like the Forrest Gump of the mob underworld.

“Painting houses” is mob slang for carrying out hit jobs. As the retired geriatric iteration of Sheeran pointedly assures us (breaking the fourth wall Goodfellas style throughout the film), he was a very good “painter” back in the day. He knew some guys. We meet them via flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Sheeran’s key cohort is Russell Bufalino (brilliantly played by Joe Pesci, who reportedly had to be brow-beaten out of semi-retirement by Scorsese and co-producer De Niro to get the gang back together for just one final heist). In younger days, when he is working as a truck driver for a meat packing firm, Sheeran has a (friendly) chance encounter with Bufalino, the head of a Pennsylvania mob family.

The pair’s professional association does not begin at that time, but Sheeran is later “officially” introduced to Russell by his cousin Bill (Ray Romano), a union lawyer who gets Sheeran off the hook for skimming meat shipments and selling them to a Philly mob.

This is Sheeran’s entree into the mob underworld, and the ensuing tale, which spans the 1950s through the 1970s, is nothing short of a grand Mafia epic (whether it’s 100% factual or not). The story begins in Philadelphia but shifts locales to cover events that went down in New York City, Detroit and Miami (Scorsese’s use of Jackie Gleason’s “Melancholy Serenade” for his establishing shot of Miami is so money I nearly plotzed).

A significant portion of the film involves Sheeran’s association with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). It’s a treat to savor De Niro and Pacino sharing so much screen time; a long-overdue pairing of acting titans that was comparatively teased at in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat.

I’m on the fence regarding Pacino’s take on Hoffa. It’s quite…demonstrative. Then again, Jimmy Hoffa was a larger-than-life character. Also, De Niro’s performance is relatively low-key, so perhaps it’s just their contrasting styles.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent…and populous. Stephen Graham (as “Tony Pro” Provenzano) is a standout (the always intense UK actor had a memorable recurring role as Al Capone in the Scorsese-produced HBO series Boardwalk Empire).

The cast also includes Bobby Cannavale (another Boardwalk Empire alum) and Anna Paquin (as Sheeran’s eldest daughter). I didn’t recognize comedian Jim Norton (as Don Rickles) or musician (and Sopranos veteran) Steven Van Zandt as singer Jerry Vale until the credits!

Ultimately, the film belongs to (and hinges on) De Niro and his performance; and he does not disappoint. He and Scorsese have collaborated so closely for so many decades that it is hard to distinguish when one or the other’s aesthetic begins and the other one’s ends. Not that this collaboration signals the “the end” of either artist’s creative journey; if anything, it serves to remind movie audiences what real classical filmmaking is all about.

Trial and error: When They See Us (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 8, 2019)

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We all want justice, but you got to have the money to buy it
You’d have to be a fool to close your eyes and deny it
There’s a lot of poor people who are walking the streets of my town
Too blind to see that justice is used to do them right down

All life from beginning to end
You pay your monthly installments
Next to health is wealth
And only wealth will buy you justice

— Alan Price, “Justice” (from the soundtrack for the film O Lucky Man!)

ANTRON McCRAY: [played by Caleel Harris] I lied on you, too.

RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: [played by Marquis Rodriguez] Yeah. Me, too. I’m sorry, man.

YUSEF SALAAM: [played by Ethan Herisse] They made us lie. Right?

KEVIN RICHARDSON: [played by Asante Blackk] Why are they doing us like this?

RAYMOND SANTANA JR.: What other way they ever do us?

— From a scene in the Netflix miniseries When They See Us

The wheels of justice sometimes move in mysterious ways. Via NBC earlier this week:

Former Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein resigned from Vassar College’s board of trustees Tuesday amid a new wave of backlash over her role in the infamous Central Park Five case.

Fairstein’s role in the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of five teenagers of color in 1990, after a white woman was attacked in Central Park, has come under new scrutiny after director Ava DuVernay released a Netflix miniseries about the case, “When They See Us.”

The so-called Central Park Five — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam — were vindicated 13 years after the crime when a serial rapist confessed to the attack.

[Fairstein]…ran the district attorney’s sex crimes unit at the time of the case. The Netflix series prompted the #CancelLindaFairstein hashtag on social media and calls for her prior cases to be re-examined. […]

“The events of the last few days have underscored how the history of racial and ethnic tensions in this country continue to deeply influence us today, and in ways that change over time,” Bradley said.

Unfortunately for those five young men (ages from 14 to 16 when they were arrested and charged), the extant “social media” platforms throughout the course of their controversial high-profile trials back in 1990 were still relatively old school: phone calls, telegrams, post cards, letters to the editor, graffiti, flyers, rallies, demonstrations, etc.

Those with the biggest bullhorns tended to have the biggest wallets (and the most dubious agendas). For example, if you had $85,000 handy you could place full-page ads in four NYC dailies:

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From the Guardian:

On the evening of 19 April [1989], as 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili, who was white, jogged across the northern, dilapidated section of Central Park, she was attacked – bludgeoned with a rock, gagged, tied and raped. She was left for dead but discovered hours later, unconscious and suffering from hypothermia and severe brain damage.

The New York police department believed they already had the culprits in custody. […]

[The five young men] would all later deny any involvement in criminality that night, but as they were rounded up and interrogated by the police at length, they said, they were forced into confessing to the rape. […]

Four of the boys signed confessions and appeared on video without a lawyer, each arguing that while they had not been the individual to commit the rape, they had witnessed one of the others do it, thereby implicating the entire group. […]

Just two weeks after the Central Park attack, before any of the boys had faced trial and while Meili remained critically ill in a coma, Donald Trump, whose office on Fifth Avenue commanded an exquisite view of the park’s opulent southern frontier, intervened.

He paid a reported $85,000 to take out advertising space in four of the city’s newspapers, including the New York Times. Under the headline “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” and above his signature, Trump wrote: “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”

But I don’t want to make this about Donald Trump…even if he is an unavoidable part of the story. Fortunately, neither does director/co-writer Ava Duvernay. That said, Duvernay does not avoid him altogether in her 5-hour Netflix miniseries When They See Us, a dramatization of the events. Trump has several “cameos”, in the form of archival TV interview footage (no actor in a bad toupee is required; she wisely lets him hang himself).

In fact Duvernay and co-writers Julian Breece, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, and Michael Starrbury forgo focusing on the racist demagoguery and media sensationalism that fueled the rush to judgement in the court of public opinion prior to the trials; opting to explore the deeply personal tribulations of the five accused young men and their families.

The result is a shattering, sobering look at the case and its aftermath; from the inside out, as it were. The story opens the night of the incident; you see how fate and circumstance swept Yusef (Ethan Hiresse and Chris Chalk), Kevin (Assante Blackk and Justin Cunningham), Anton (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares) and Korey (Jharrel Jerome) into the wrong place at the wrong time.

The quintet’s Kafkaesque nightmare begins once the scene shifts to the police station. They’ve been singled out from 30-odd young males alleged to have been roaming Central Park en masse, harassing bikers, runners, and passers-by at random (only two of the five knew each other prior to that night).

They’re taken into separate interrogation rooms for questioning. Pressured by sex crimes unit D.A. Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) to squeeze out confessions ASAP (“Every black male who was in the park last night is a suspect” she declares), the detectives proceed to pull out every old dirty trick in the book.

It’s painful to watch the lopsided match of seasoned interrogators exploiting the boys’ fear and confusion in such a cold and calculated manner. Duvernay reveals every iota of the deepening panic and despair on the young actors’ faces by holding them in long, tight closeups. Inevitably, they all break under the pressure of verbal intimidation and strong-arm tactics.

As we follow the boys’ hellish trajectory through the system-interrogation, detention, trials, sentencing and incarceration, you not only get a palpable sense of what each of them was going through, but how their families suffered as well. You also get a sense of a criminal justice system that does not always follow its provisos-like that part regarding “equal justice under the law” (especially when it comes to people of color…needs work).

While the story of the Central Park 5 does have a “happy ending” (bittersweet), Duvernay does not pull any punches regarding that what befell these kids should never, ever have happened in the first place (especially in an allegedly “free society”).

It was a perfect storm of overzealous law enforcement, socioeconomic inequity, systemic racism, and media-fueled public hysteria that put those innocent young men behind bars. I should warn you-watching this miniseries will break your heart and make you mad. As it should.

Screen capture: Stockholm (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 27, 2019)

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I’m sure you have heard the term “Stockholm syndrome”? In the event you’re a hypochondriac who may lay awake tonight worrying you’ve “caught” it, let me put your mind at ease…unless you are currently a hostage, exhibiting all the following indications:

1. A development of positive feelings towards your captor.

2. There has been no previous relationship between you and your captor.

3. You’re refusing to cooperate with police forces and other government authorities.

4. You no longer feel threatened, as you’ve adapted your captor’s world view.

Granted, if you ticked all those boxes it could also indicate you’re a Trump supporter; but that discussion is for another time. This is (purportedly) a “movie review”, which I assume is what you came here for (and you’re free to leave…I’m not forcing you to stay).

Like the phrase “drinking the Kool-aid” (now routinely applied to any behavior felt to be analogous to the mass suicide of Jim Jones’ followers at the People’s Temple compound in Jonestown) “Stockholm syndrome” has an etymology that was torn from the headlines.

In 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson, a Swedish convict on leave from prison (Sweden’s penal system is a bit different from ours) held up a bank in Stockholm. What began as a run-of-the-mill “take the money and run” operation escalated once Olsson impulsively took hostages following a shoot-out with cops, who arrived before he could make his getaway.

Olsson’s behavior was eccentric; after wounding one of the two officers who made their way into the bank, he ordered the other to sit in a chair and “sing something” (the officer promptly launched into “Lonesome Cowboy”). Olsson himself was reportedly a tuneful fellow; frequently warbling Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” throughout the incident.

His first demand was that his friend Clark Olofsson be released from prison and brought in to join him at the bank. The authorities agreed; hoping to utilize Olofsson as a liaison for negotiation with police. That plan went nowhere fast; resulting in the two cohorts retreating into the bank’s vault with the four hostages and barricading themselves there.

Any leverage that the authorities may have had at the outset was compromised when the incident became a media circus; it was covered on live television, marking the first time that Swedish viewers had been offered a ringside seat to an unfolding crime-in-progress.

In the course of the 6-day incident, something unique occurred regarding the relationship between the hostages and their captors. After a phone call Olsson made to Prime Minister Olaf Palme threatening to kill a hostage if his demands to be given safe passage from the bank were not met by a deadline failed to yield results, hostage Kristin Enmark placed her own follow-up call to express her disapproval; she chastised Palme for his “attitude”. This bonding between captors and captives led to the coining of “Stockholm syndrome.”

You couldn’t make this shit up, right? Sounds like perfect fodder for a slam-bang seriocomic heist-gone-awry true-crime thriller a la Dog Day Afternoon. Unfortunately, writer-director Robert Budreau’s Stockholm is not that film. Which is a real shame when you’ve got excellent actors like Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace and Mark Strong on board.

As in the aforementioned Dog Day Afternoon, principal character’s names have been changed to protect the guilty; Jan-Erik Olsson is “Lars Nystrom” (Hawke), Clark Olofsson is “Gunnar Sorensson” (Strong) and Kristin Enmark is “Bianca Lind” (Rapace).

Hawke’s costuming makes him a ringer for Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider (now that I think about it, I could swear he was consciously channeling Hopper’s idiosyncratic tics and mannerisms). His performance dances on the edge of hammy, as if he wasn’t quite sure whether to play it for comedic or dramatic effect; although that may attributable to the bathos in Budreau’s script (which I feel fails to reveal the humanity of the characters).

The most glaring hole in the script is the writer’s apparent lack of interest in the biggest question: “why” did the hostages side with their captors? What turned them? There is nothing in the actions of the characters themselves that suggests exactly when this pivotal moment has occurred; we only know that this has “happened” when the head police negotiator wonders aloud why the hostages have allied themselves with their captors.

Good question, as we in the audience would kind of like to know why this happened too.

Broken wing: Birds of Passage (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2019)

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There have been myriad articles, books, series, documentaries and films recounting the tumultuous history of the Colombian drug trade, but nothing I have previously read or seen on the subject prepared me for Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage.

Spanning 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the film (based on true events) is equal parts crime family saga and National Geographic special; The Godfather meets The Emerald Forest. On paper, this may seem like a familiar “rise and fall of a drug lord” story- but the filmmakers tell it through the unique cultural lens of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu tribe.

The Wayuu people have dwelt in the desolate La Guajira Desert (which overlaps Colombia and Venezuela) for nearly 2,000 years. They have managed to keep many of their cultural traditions remarkably intact…considering. In other words, I’m not saying that they haven’t gotten their hair mussed once or twice throughout the millennia; from 18th-Century invasions and persecution by the Spanish, to a veritable laundry list of discriminatory and exclusionary edicts by the Colombian and Venezuelan governments.

Considering all the limitations historically placed on them (which includes having little control over and restricted access to raw materials on their own land) it is not surprising that the Wayuu have relied heavily on farming and trading as the chief means of survival.

Birds of Passage begins in 1960, right around the time the Wayuu discovered there was some easily cultivated local flora becoming quite popular with the alijunas (their word for “foreigners”) and ripe for commodification. From a 2018 Global Americas article:

It was the 1960’s in La Guajira, the northernmost tip of Colombia and Venezuela, and the indigenous Wayuu were used to trading as a way of life.  It has long been part of their survival in this harsh desert environment.

They were first courted by the new Peace Corps volunteers that President Kennedy had set up to fight communism in the region.  As they spread pamphlets and advised the indigenous people to “say no to communism,” they also asked to buy marijuana. Soon, the young Americans introduced the Wayuu to their North American connections, who opened up small drug runs in propeller planes between Colombia and the United States.  At the time, marijuana was a controlled but legal substance in the United States. However, the Wayuu quickly discovered that it was much more profitable than coffee, whiskey and the other commodities they usually traded to eke out a living in this remote area.

The film’s opening passage is an intoxicating immersion in Wayuu culture; a beautiful young woman named Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has “come of age” and is commanded by her rather stern mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez) to don a resplendent red outfit and perform what appears to be a “mating dance” at a village gathering (the first of the film’s numerous avian metaphors). Several eligible suitors cut in to display their wares; ultimately one is left standing. His name is Rapayet (Jose Acosta) and vows to marry her.

However, there is the matter of a dowry (cows, goats, a few other sundries) that Rapayet is required to deliver within a specified time. Like most Wayuu, he’s a little short that week and needs to scare up some coin pronto if he wants to win his bride.

He turns to his best friend Moises (Jhon Narvaez) a non-tribal Colombian and free-spirited hustler who tells Rapayet he knows some American Peace Corps volunteers who happen to be in the market for some fine Colombian. This relatively benign, small-time dope deal plants the seeds (so to speak) for what eventually evolves into a Wayuu drug empire, with Rapayet at the helm.

As inevitably ensues in such tales, it is greed, corruption and avarice that sends the protagonist hurtling toward self-destruction, but Maria Camila Arias’ screenplay sidesteps usual clichés by introducing the complexities of cultural identity into the mix. What results is a parable that’s at once overly familiar, yet somehow…wholly unfamiliar.