OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS (Barbet Schroeder, 2000)

More a poem based on the autobiographical novel by Fernando Vallejo than a literal adaptation, Our Lady of the Assassins (La Virgen de los sicarios) is directed by Barbet Schroeder, whose best film prior to this one is the grim and witty documentary General Idi Amin Dada (1974), about the Ugandan dictator. Sorbonne-educated in philosophy, and a former film critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, Schroeder has produced or executive produced films by Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, and has himself directed fictional films about Charles Bukowski (Barfly, 1987)—Schroeder also directed a series of interviews, or faux-interviews, of the author, The Charles Bukowski Tapes (1985)—and society couple Claus and Sunny von Bulow (Reversal of Fortune, 1990). He has acted in films by Jean-Luc Godard (Les carabinièrs, 1963) and Râúl Ruiz (The Golden Boat, 1990). Most relevant of all, perhaps, for the Vallejo film, he also was raised in Colombia. Schroeder has said he wanted to make the city of Medellin, where the film was shot, one of the film’s major characters. He has drawn from Medellin a brilliant performance.

This is probably the most appalling film about the “drug scene” I know of. (The most facile—the worst: Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.) It isn’t a “scene” here, actually, for the whole city, including its streets and churches, is portrayed as being subsumed in the rhythm and the details of the drug trade. Moreover, Our Lady of the Assassins is a love story—a love story birthed from the bowels of the city’s desperation and decay. This film is irresistibly alive on the subject of death, imminent death, possible death. It quietly and convincingly offers a vision of hell on earth: death as a way of life. Few other films so tightly hold one in their grip.

The film’s protagonist shares with Vallejo the name of Fernando, and he also is a writer and a homosexual. (Gérman Jaramillo, as Fernando, gives a pitch-perfect performance.) Relatively young (about fifty), Fernando has returned to Medellin, his hometown, after nearly thirty years, his head full of thoughts of his own death. He has been, as he says, “everywhere.” He is, as we say, world-weary, and the lack of detail Schroeder provides as to why someone so young should feel this way helps abstract Fernando’s state of mind (and state of heart) into a recognizable aspect of the human condition, the “blue feeling” when it has deepened beyond a passing mood to become a kind of prison predicting no upcoming or certain release. In a sense, Fernando has come home to die; but the city he recalls as fresh and alive has itself died, and this shifts Fernando’s perspective in subtle ways. Is there any way he can redeem Medellin with what remains of his life?

At a male brothel Fernando meets Alexis, a good-humored, gun-toting 16-year-old boy, who, ironically, is closer to the end of his life than Fernando is to the end of his. Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros), though, seems full of life. The two become live-in lovers, and while Fernando tries to draw the boy into his quiet, cultured world (for instance, by introducing him to the voice of opera singer Maria Callas), Alexis is more adept at drawing Fernando into his world of crime and sudden death. In addition to being a prostitute, Alexis is an assassin; gun-happy in the manner of Billy the Kid, he is apt to pull out a gun on the street and, with impunity and seeming invincibility, shoot to death anyone he cares to on the spot, on an impulse. When the two are walking outside together, Alexis does just that. Fernando, of course, can’t condone this; he even tries curbing Alexis’s behavior—to no avail. In a world of gang retribution, what Alexis does that makes him feel so alive is constantly threatening him with his own death. This is a world that Fernando never dreamed existed. The deeper and deeper Fernando gets into it, as Alexis’s victims pile up, the more trivial his own death wish seems to him. Was he only pretending to desire death? He claims that all the street deaths he witnesses encourage his self-destructive urges; but the opposite seems the case. A killing machine, Alexis compels him to face reality. Death is all around Fernando. At a municipal dumping ground a sign says, “No dumping of corpses,” which no one pays attention to. The corpses are piled high.

On their first outing, they visit a cantina, an old haunt of Fernando’s in the country, and Fernando waxes sentimentally nostalgic over a drink, telling Alexis that only he in his family still lives; he has lost grandparents, parents, brothers and sister. They visit a church (it’s a day glorifying the Virgin Mary), and Fernando discovers one thing that he and the boy share in common: devout faith. A statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus looms. Outside the church, two gangs collide, generating corpses on the square and the church steps. Fernando and Alexis discuss death. Back at his high-rise apartment, from the terrace Fernando shows Alexis a gorgeous panorama of Medellin. Virgin/City: the sequence of images has forged the breathing symbolism of a connection. Fernando has returned to the bosom of his mother, Medellin, to die; the boy, who has told Fernando that his mother named him Alexis, feels the connection between city, mother and devotion for the first time. At nighttime, the city is again beautiful, pitch-dark and aglitter with lights, like the plethora of candles in the church the two visited. People, like Alexis, now account life cheap and dispatch it easily, cluttering the streets with corpses and frightened passers-by. The city that gives life can no longer sustain its children with hope.

Fernando and Alexis genuinely fall in love. Alexis saves Fernando’s life when a homophobic cab driver attacks Fernando with a machete. These and other incidents are foreground accompaniment to the city always vivid in the background, from the apartment terrace, from the windows of cars and buses, from all around during their many walks together. The city sanctifies the love of Fernando and Alexis. Fernando steals ammunition for his lover from the local army barracks. One day, a friend on the street warns Alexis that boys on a motorcycle will be gunning for him. When the two visit an old house of Fernando’s, the motorcycle comes and Alexis dispatches the two assassins, causing blood to splash on the house. Without irony, Fernando curses the dead boys for splattering blood on his house. Despite his humanism, despite all his counsel to Alexis to find some other way than violence to live his life, it is Alexis who has drawn Fernando into his world, the pitiless new reality of Medellin. But only for an instant. That night, drinking together, Fernando regales a delighted Alexis with a sweepingly prophetic speech about life’s being a “mirage of nothingness,” that time is poised to erase everything, and that the Colombian people now are “scumbags, crack heads, petty thieves” (although perhaps the Spanish is more strongly worded). He feels abandoned by the city, then. However, his humanity kicks back in full force, and he shares even more deeply than before his concern over all these “absurd deaths.” He is speaking to Alexis now in his own voice, not the mock-prophetic one; but the next day the prophecy nearly rings true. Alexis is shot at by two boys on a red motorcycle using “blessed bullets that cannot miss.” Alexis dispatches one of them; the other flees. At the apartment Fernando and Alexis rejoice; against the backdrop of the city, Fernando tells Alexis that he is the best thing life has ever given him. It is absolutely clear that Alexis reciprocates this love to the depth of his soul. For the moment, then, Fernando feels happy to be alive; but that night he dreams of the danger Alexis is in, and the night after that, after using Alexis’s gun to dispatch a suffering dog in the street and declaring God’s betrayal or nonexistence, he attempts suicide with the gun. Alexis foils the attempt but loses the gun, his protection, to the adjacent stream. On that earlier night of drunken prophecy, when Fernando described life as a “mirage of nothingness,” he had invoked the image of a flowing river washing everything away to destruction. I don’t know when a film has delivered to me, as here, a genuine mortal shudder.

The two assassins on the red motorcycle were brothers, and the next night the surviving brother exacts his revenge as, protecting him, Alexis shields Fernando from the torrent of bullets that would have taken them both down. Alexis is dead, and Fernando, having thus lost his great love, is once again bereft. His own mother; Mary, mother of God; Medellin: there is no protection from loss; there is no comfort or consolation; Colombian humanity is beyond possibility, no matter (indeed, partly because of) the political hay that national and world leaders make on the topic of the “war on drugs.” Fernando, who had returned to Medellin thinking he had lost everything, including the will to live, now discovers to the pit of his heart how much more there is to lose.

By strange coincidence (call it providence), Fernando’s next lover is Wilmar (Juan David Restrepo, no more than adequate), the boy who killed Alexis. In time, Fernando will discover this. What a cosmic joke; and again, once the joke has played out, Fernando will be bereft yet again. Life under the best of circumstances is a cycle of loss; Medellin in the twenty-first century finds itself in the worst of circumstances.

Our Lady of the Assassins places Schroeder in a higher class of filmmakers than he has thus far occupied. He has fashioned a tender love story, giving it a context that takes the compound to a visionary level. He has drawn profound performances from the two leads (what a superlative actor young Ballesteros is!), as well as from the city whose dangers he, his cast and small crew braved in order to achieve what they may have suspected would turn out to be a tremendous thing. Shooting was done on high-definition videotape, and the result, especially with regards to the portrayal of Medellin, is astonishingly clear, to the point of transparency even, and graced by the sense of depth we worry about sacrificing when we turn from film to video. I love city life and am thrilled that Schroeder captured the depth and vitality of this as few have. His Medellin is as vibrantly, achingly alive, as thrilling and beauteous, as David Lynch’s Los Angeles in Mulholland Dr. (2001). Like Lynch, Schroeder finds the reality that verges on the surreal and the phantasmagoric, seemingly polar opposite modes of existence that in their mind’s eye slip in and out of one another with fluid ease. And the beauty of the city makes all the more heartrending the spectacle of young deaths blighting what might have been a paradise had there only been a God in the heavens.

The videography by Rodrigo Lalinde is admirable, and the somber, delicate score by Jorge Arriagada is much more than that.

Schroeder won major prizes at Venice and Havana for Our Lady of the Assassins, which also was named best film at the 2001 International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in Verzaubert, Germany.

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