There are moments in Drunken Birds, Serbian Canadian director Ivan Grbovic’s long-awaited second feature, that evoke strong sense memories of Days Of Heaven, Terrence Malick’s definitive film about the beauty and hardship of the rural laboring life. Days Of Heaven was set in 1916; Drunken Birds takes place today on a successful vegetable farm in Québec, where the workers are bussed in seasonally from Mexico. Otherwise, not much is different. The sun rises and sets in its infinite glory. The workers cut vast fields of lettuces; the work is back-breaking and the hours are long, but there is a dignity in it. The Canadian farmer seems fair, but the boss is always the boss.
Drunken Birds, which is Canada’s submission to the International Feature Oscar race, is never less than beautiful. It begins with a succession of apparently unconnected sequences. A car explodes on a desert highway; a Mexican man we will come to know as Willy runs across the spinifex, pursued by a gunman in a carnivalesque shirt who finally tells him to run away and not come back. Forget Marlena, he says. She will be dead by now.
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Fade to a Spanish-speaking woman answering a phone in a darkened sitting room; the line goes dead. And now we join a group of men wandering around a vast abandoned mansion, watched surreptitiously by a wary white tiger. One of the reception rooms has been built to fit a full-size merry-go-round. “There’s money in drugs,” laughs one sightseer.
All these drifting bits of story and memory do loop back and tie together, but Drunken Birds demands a certain level of viewer serenity. Subsequent longer vignettes reveal that Willy (Roma alum Jorge Antonio Guerrero, a compelling presence) was chauffeur to a drug lord and Marlena (Yoshira Escarrega) was the gangster’s trophy girlfriend. These two bonded servants fell in love; he helped her escape, vowing to find her. Four years later he is in Canada, having remembered she had an aunt in Montréal. Like Willy himself, the film holds to a deep belief in the purity of love. On Sundays, this bracero Quixote goes to the internet café in his quest to find his Dulcinea; the rest of the time, he is picking lettuce.
Perhaps it is the yearning in him that calls out to Julia, (Hélène Florent) who deals with the farm accounts while her husband Richard (Claude Legault) marshals the pickers. Julia is thin, taciturn, apparently flattened by the icy winds of her own dissatisfaction. Last year, she had an affair with a worker who is not here this season. When Willy relates his story to her in a chance quiet moment, she wipes his tears then leans in to kiss him. She might as well be eating him. Julia is passive, but she is a predator too; the boss’s wife is always the boss’s wife.
This interplay of passivity and privilege turns fully toxic when Léa (Martine Johnson), the couple’s teenage daughter, is beaten up by a man her parents would never imagine she knew. Léa is idle, wayward, frightened by her mother’s obvious infidelities and something of a thrill-seeker. It is easier to let her parents believe a Mexican hurt her than admit that yes, she has been flirting with party prostitution and guess what, crime really does not pay. So she lies on her despised mother’s knee, crying a little; the man now being pursued through the corn is nothing to do with her, after all. Her mother spots the party stamp on her wrist, but just keeps stroking her hair. The scene is as creepy as any horror film.
There are many such telling moments: a shadowy pan across the dormitory where the laborers are variously cutting each other’s hair, reading trash paperbacks, cooking or horsing around; Léa in her silver party dress and stocking feet, bruised but laughing in the empty Montreal CBD at dawn; Julia lying in her favorite secret glade, practicing speaking Spanish into her phone where nobody can hear her.
Grbovic came to directing as a cinematographer, while the cinematographer on this film, Sara Mishara, is also the co-writer; there is a perfect alignment of idea and image. Drunken Birds may ultimately be about exploitation in its different guises, but they turn it into poetry.
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