Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Birds of Passage and ‘The Cold Heart’

José Acosta and Natalia Reyes in Birds of Passage, a “tragedy of Shakespearean proportions” and an “instant classic.”

I should let it go, but I can’t: every year, I get worked up about the silliness known as the Academy Awards. Expecting a good result from a competition in which the electorate don’t even have to have seen the films they’re voting for is a fool’s game, but for some reason I can’t stop playing.

This year, I’m especially exercised about the Best Foreign Film category: I recently damned one of the nominated films with faint praise and was then thoroughly underwhelmed by Roma (thanks, Netflix). Meanwhile, Pájaros de verano (Birds of Passage, opening on Friday, March 1 at Landmark’s Shattuck CInemas) is better than any of the three nominees I’ve seen, but — despite being included on the Academy’s ‘short list’ — didn’t make the cut.

Written and directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, Birds of Passage examines the damage wrought by western consumer capitalism on the indigenous Wayuu people of northern Colombia. If that sounds dry, dusty and ideological, don’t worry — it’s anything but.

Structured as a song cycle, Birds of Passage begins in 1968, as poor farmer Rapayet (José Acosta) attempts to win the hand of Zaida (Natalia Reyes). Zaida’s mother Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) believes her daughter can do better, setting her dowry at an unrealistic price she believes Rapayet’s family will be unable to pay.


Rapayet, however, isn’t willing to throw in the towel, and when he and best pal Moises (Jhon Narváez) meet a group of American Peace Corps hippies looking to buy some Mary Jane, they know who to turn too: cousin Anibal (Juan Bautista Martínez), who owns land where the stuff grows like, well, weed. Soon enough, a deal has been consummated and 1,300 pounds of primo pot are on their way to the United States.

As the years pass, the deals get bigger, the stacks get taller, and — despite the best efforts of matriarch Ursula — the weight of the Wayuu’s newfound wealth eventually destroys their traditions and way of life. The result is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, and while Birds of Passage offers little in the way of surprising plot developments the power of its storytelling and commitment of its cast render it an instant classic. That’s not a word I use very often. If you only take my advice once a year, this is your moment.

‘The Cold Heart’ screens at BAMPFA

Karl Ulrich Schnabel’s one and only film, The Cold Heart, screens Saturday at BAMPFA

If you’re in the mood for something a little more outré, Pacific Film Archive has an unusual treat on offer this weekend: pianist Karl Ulrich Schnabel’s one and only film, Das Kalte Herz (The Cold Heart, screening on Saturday, March 2 at 4 p.m.). Though Schnabel shot his footage between 1931 and 1933, the film wasn’t completed until 2016!

Based on a story by Wilhelm Hauff (who died of typhoid fever in 1827 at the age of 24), The Cold Heart is a crudely made silent fairy tale about Peter (Franz Schnyder), a young man who stumbles across a supernatural creature known as the ‘Glass-Manikin.’ This leprechaun-like creature can grant three wishes; naturally, Peter misuses them and comes to regret his choices.

Schnabel was clearly a beginner with the camera, but that didn’t stop him from incorporating stop-motion animation, double exposures and artfully designed intertitles into this rather wonderful piece of amateur art. If you can imagine Maya Deren directing Darby O’Gill and the Little People, you’ll begin to have some idea of what to expect!