Our Lady of the Assassins

| October 10, 2001

If you want to feel safe in these times of hijacked-plane-turned-bombs and Sikhs being killed because they look like Muslims, go to this movie. Anything and anywhere seems secure in contrast. The main character is the city of Medellin, of drug cartel fame. Baby-faced assassins, who kill with a languor more suited to a lazy summer evening collecting fireflies, populate it. Our guide through the steep, winding roads of the city is Fernando Vallejo, an aging writer who has come home, in his own words, to die. While the movie sputters and stalls every now and then, with clichés and mundane observations tripping it up, what makes it work ultimately, is the feeling that everyone involved in the movie has seen this world, and wants to tell us, the innocents, about it.
Adapted from Fernando Vallejo’s 1994 novel La Virgen de Los Sicarios, the movie opens with Vallejo arriving at an orgy at a friend’s house. The color used in this sequence, reminds us of the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut, the difference being that there is no wide-eyed, gaping Tom Cruise floating through the party. This was Fernando’s world, and he proceeds, without much ado, to get together with Alexis, a young prostitute who packs a Beretta and whips it out at the tiniest provocation. The orgy could be a vision of hell: young beautiful boys waiting around for lecherous older men, dark, heavy furnishings, a pervasive red light which seems emblematic of not warmth, but blood. And sure enough, it is the prelude to the real hell, which is out on the streets, where there is no rule of law–there is no authority in sight–and death is a way of life.
In between his shooting of a taxi driver, a neighbor, and members of a rival gang, Alexis keeps professing his love of Fernando, and Fernando alternates between blaspheming and seeking the solace of “God’s silence.” If both of these strands had worked equally well, then the movie would have been excellent. Alexis is consistent, in that his declaration of love is as casual as his shootings; both speak of an incredibly short attention span. If death lurks behind every corner, maybe you don’t need such a long attention span. But Fernando seems oddly unperceptive for a writer. He seems more like a paid tour guide who takes you on the “Churches and Drug Dens” tour, while keeping a watch on the taxi-meter. His best performance comes in the subway where two thugs pick a fight with him, and Fernando, as the “foremost grammaticist in Colombia,” delivers a monologue on the use of a preposition. German Jaramillo, who plays Vallejo, is a theater actor and some of his soliloquies seem too stagey. Unlike in Death in Venice, Vallejo has no friend with whom to discuss the murderous youths he associates with and seems to love. So his musings must be addressed to the people of the valley he can see from his balcony or to Alexis, the nino, listening to loud rock music on his new hi-fi. Anderson Ballesteros as the young Alexis fares much better.
The focus on Catholic images, juxtaposed against the enduring smell of death, is intriguing, but again, Vallejo’s lack of empathy with his surroundings forces the audience to concentrate on the churches themselves or on the junkies who seem to have taken over some of them, rather than the potentially fascinating relationship between religion–la Virgen–and the little assassins. The golden bullet is blessed by the Virgin, never to miss its target, and Alexis, candle in hand, makes frequent visits to his church of choice. But there is no exploration of the difference in Fernando’s relationship to the church, and Alexis’s.
Both the spectacular views of the hilly countryside around Medellin and the lilting, melodious Colombian accents are a sharp contrast to the amount of blood being spilled. Director Barbet Schroeder succeeds in shocking our sensibilities by not over-dramatizing or romanticizing his subject matter. The circumstances under which the film was shot–under constant police guard because of the threat of kidnapping–mean that it is almost unfair to criticize the photography for its flatness, or the editing for not being more creative. Maybe there will come a time when you can shoot a movie on the streets of Medellin without being in mortal fear of violence. Until then, this picture of Alexis’s world is what we have to remind us what danger really means.

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