Review by Thom Ernst
(November 26, 2021 – Toronto,ON) The wingspan of Canadian cinema continues to grow. Drunken Birds from director Ivan Grbovik is a next-step example of the borderless extension of the Canadian experience. And sometimes, as Drunken Birds reminds us, the Canadian experience doesn’t solely belong to Canadians.
The film begins in an apartment building overlooking a busy highway. A phone rings, but when the phone is answered, the caller hangs up. Outside, a car narrowly misses hitting a stranger. Unfazed, the stranger looks up at the balcony. The camera pulls from the balcony, crosses a tiny kitchen, and stops at the apartment door. The camera lingers as if the answer to the mystery of the phone call and of the stranger will at any moment burst through the door.
But it’s too early for Grbovik to answer any question we might have. Instead, Grbovik pushes the lens against the door’s peephole allowing us to peer through. But the camera doesn’t move fast enough and the image isn’t quite clear, so we shift in our seats, straining to get a better look. But what we see on the other side of the door is far from what we imagine.
It’s not that Grbovik is toying with us. Grbovik simply maintains an awareness of the flimsy divide between time and place, as if life happens all at once and only by divvying up moments into selected images can we understand the entire story.
I fear any attempt at summarizing the story would be akin to handing over a shoebox full of loose photographs. Drunken Birds is a layered story but not an unnecessarily complex one.
As you might imagine, the film has very little to do with birds. Grbovik’s story focuses on Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a young Mexican migrant worker searching for Marlena (Yoshira Escárrega), the woman he loves. Marlena is the wife of Willy’s former boss, the head of a violent drug cartel.
Willy is something of an anomaly for someone who can list drug-runner as a recent occupation on his resume. Willy is a man of conviction with no control over his heart’s desires. It is a dangerous move to confess his love to Marlena so openly, but his bravery pays off, and Marlena and Willy become lovers.
When the drug-lord, a man with a delusional image of himself as revealed in a wall-sized portrait that contradicts reality, is injured in a gunfight, Marlena and Willy attempt to concoct a convincing letter to explain her leaving without incurring his wrath.
Marlena leaves to an unknown address. Willy follows soon after, believing her to be in Quebec. He accepts work at a family-run produce farm in Quebec in hopes of locating Marlena.
But Willy’s presence at the farm unintentionally increases an already wide chasm between husband-and-wife Richard (Claude Legault) and Julia (Hélène Florent), the farm owners. Additionally, there is Lea, their teenage daughter Lea (Marine Johnson) who grows restless on the farm and seeks ways to escape, not all of them safe.
Grbovik’s is skilled at coaxing the viewer beyond the focus of his lens. Other stories like parallel universes skirt along the edges of the film’s frame: a community of Sikh men labour in an adjoining field, and polaroid pictures tacked to the walls of the bunkhouse reveal brief tales of home.
“I am like two people,” claims a worker who has returned to the farm for the past 15 harvests, “I have two lives. The person I am at home. And the person here.” And as he speaks, our thoughts briefly follow the man to the place he imagines.
I struggle somewhat to comprehend Grbovik’s intent in calling the film, Drunken Birds. It’s not a term I’m familiar with, but I hazard a guess that it’s related to the unique flight pattern of a flock of starlings seen near the end of the film. But the term seems as much a misnomer in describing the uniformed flight patterns of starlings—a phenomena known as murmuration—as it is a reference to the flux of seasonal migrant workers flocking to Canada to help harvest produce.
Although, the bird’s free-form artistry forming shapes in the sky like an ever-changing Rorschach test does appear to be random and without direction, but it’s also an astounding act of graceful precision.
I assume that the misnomer is the point of the title, the mislabeling of an action that is either instinctual or essential to survival and thereby misinforming our assumptions.
Drunken Birds is Canada’s choice of entry for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar bid. As a contender for a Best Foreign Picture Oscar, Drunken Birds hits the right buttons: migration, immigration, better lives, lost dreams, and found hopes—topics that just might draw Oscar favour.
But resounding louder than the film’s chances at the Oscars is the path Grbovik takes us down. There are twists and turns along the way, yet it all seems familiar until it isn’t. Where Drunken Birds drops us off is a place unexpected but much preferred.
Drunken Birds is directed by Ivan Grbovik and stars Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Yoshira Escárrega, Claude Legault, Hélène Florent and Marine Johnson. As of late November 2021, Drunken Birds is playing in selected theatres.
Click here to watch the trailer and learn more about the cast and crew of Drunken Birds.
Thom Ernst is a Toronto based film critic and writer and an active member of the (TFCA) Toronto Film Critics’ Association. His work has appeared in various publications including Playback Magazine, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. He is known to CBC Radio listeners for his lively contributions to Fresh Air, Metro Morning, and CBC Syndication as well as appearing on-air for CTV News Channel and The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He was host, interviewer and producer of televisions’ longest running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. Currently he can be heard interviewing Canadian filmmakers on the Kingston Canadian Film Festival podcast, Rewind, Fast-Forward.