Our Lady of the Assassins
2000, R, 100 min. Directed by Barbet Schroeder. Starring Juan David Restrepo, Anderson Ballesteros, Germán Jaramillo.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 19, 2001
Barbet Schroeder, the international film director and producer who is most widely known for his American films Reversal of Fortune, Barfly, and Single White Female, returns to Colombia, the country of his youth, for his latest movie Our Lady of the Assassins (La Virgen de los Sicarios). Based on the novel by Colombian author Fernando Vallejo, this Spanish-language movie has more in common with Schroeder's earlier documentary work than his recent psychological thrillers. Filmed on the quick in the streets of Medellín, home to the infamous drug cartels, Our Lady of the Assassins is a bracing ode to the city -- a place of aching beauty and poverty, encompassed by a disconcerting halo of ancient culture and modern nihilism. Fernando (Jaramillo), a fiftyish writer who has the same name as the novel's author (who also wrote the screenplay), has returned to Medellín after a 30-year absence with the stated aim of dying there. Fernando is a stranger in a new land however. The graceful and cultured city of his memory has become an anarchic circle of hell punctuated with constant drive-by shootings, endlessly fatal vendettas, and senseless violence and mayhem lurking behind every street corner. Fernando is our Dante in this inferno where human life has lost all value. His Virgil, or guide, is a young teen named Alexis (Ballesteros), a boy prostitute who is presented as a homecoming gift to the homosexual Fernando by an old gay friend. This odd couple strikes up a relationship that continues throughout the movie. Alexis provides Fernando with a smiling buffer for Fernando's frequent tirades about incivility and mindless breeding. Fernando provides Alexis with material goods and an inquisitive sensitivity toward the street life he leads. At first, it seems a pairing between a cultured rich man and an unmannered ruffian, but as they pass the days aimlessly wandering among the streets and churches and Fernando's big empty apartment, it is clear they share something heartfelt and genuine. As an act of love, Alexis kills a neighbor whose drum solos in the middle of the night are driving Fernando crazy. He kills a rude cab driver, and then others against whom he has vendettas. And he, too, is a target. At first Fernando is horrified, but soon he becomes swept up in the nihilistic actions. Alexis appeals to his death wish; together they are in lockstep with the demeanor of the city. Our Lady of the Assassins is as much about the fate of this damaged city and country as it is about these fictional characters. Narratively, little happens; despite this, the movie is extraordinarily compelling and gripping. A large measure of its success is due to Schroeder's shooting style that conveys a vérité immediacy and chaotic truth. The movie was filmed with high-definition video cameras that captured an amazing depth of focus in the numerous outdoors scenes, which were often filmed guerrilla-style without permits, permission, or blessing. The overall effect gives a mesmerizing sense of reality and shock. Life and death balance on the edge of machete stroke. Schroeder's Medellín is a place in which the seemingly beautiful fireworks display against the mountaintops is really just a smoke signal relaying the success of a recent cocaine shipment. In this world, beauty masks the real horrors.