Film response from the archives: Our Lady of the Assassins

Barbet Schroeder's magically fatalist DV feature adapting a novel by Fernando Vallejo rang true for me, particularly in the relationships between an older man and the young boys he pays for company.

Originally published August 22, 2002 on skinback.com.

I’ve watched Barbet Schroeder‘s La virgen de los sicarios (English title: Our Lady of the Assassins) 3 times now and I”ll probably watch it again before I send it back to Netflix.

I’m only about twenty pages into the short, eponymous novel by Fernando Vallejo upon which the movie is based; so, I can’t really say much about the appropriateness of the adaptation (by Vallejo himself) other than the narrator of the book and the main character in the movie differ in their comic cynicism only by degree. When his second lover, Wilmar, asks him why he doesn’t have a stereo, Fernando explains, “I’m preparing for the silence of the grave.” I dunno, personally I find that line hilarious, although interestingly, it doesn’t necessarily read that way. The entire script sounds lovely to my ear.

A quick synopsis: Fernando Vallejo, a semi-famous “grammarian” returns to his hometown of Medellín, Colombia, a city now violent and corrupt. He enters a relationship with a young hustler named Alexis. Day after day they engage in a nihilistic tour of the city punctuated by assassinations and ending in Alexis’ death by same. End of part one. Fernando then unknowingly takes up with Alexis’ assassin and part two ends similarly.

The most effective sequences in this movie are scenes that most resemble documentary (the language of video: the movie was shot entirely in anamorphic DV) and its weakest moments are those that look like an arthouse film (the language of film: particularly, the rather obvious if beautiful superimpositions representing prophetic dreamstates and tragic memories.)

Of the former, perhaps the most powerful occurs when after Alexis’ death Fernando visits the boy’s family’s home in Santo Domingo Savio in the upper neighborhoods of Medellín. The cab driver exclaims as he brings Fernando up the sloping shattered streets: “No one comes up here; Not even in an armored car!” A handheld camera tracks the interior of the home until it finally rests on two very young boys, one sitting on the floor declaims he’s going to “kill, kill, kill” the boy that shot Alexis. Exiting, a crane shot drifts up through the power lines, tracking Fernando’s walk back down the hill; lightning flashes in the distance; rain falls and, in the movie’s unique style of “magical fatalism,” the sidewalks run with blood, effectively blending this particular sequence with the verité sequence that came before.

I was initially turned off by this somewhat tenuous mixture of video and filmic conventions but eventually came to see the wry way Shroeder’s impulses are wed, mirroring Vallejo’s warring romantic aspirations and cynical outlook. It doesn’t always work but the failures are still interesting and often arresting.

Particularly affecting, the street kids Schroeder recruited to play the hustlers have remarkable focus and, though clearly non-professional actors, convey their characters with considerable charm and self-possession. The fascination that German Jaramillo’s Fernando holds for Anderson Ballesteros’s Alexis is evident in every shot the pair appear together. Though Fernando’s observations and diatribes crack Alexis up constantly, the tender concentration the boy has invested in the older man is nowhere more evident than when Fernando declares his devotion openly before the movie’s only full-on kiss, the city of Medellín framed behind them in the window.

I can’t help but compare this movie to the mildly contemptible L.I.E. reviewed elsewhere. Unlike that movie, you’ll get a real glimpse into a city, not to mention characters, that feels as if it has a life and history of its own, complete with tours of churches, markets, neighborhoods and town squares. The relationship between the older man and the younger man is taken for granted, there’s no panic over the possibility of sex, the dynamic between the two of them is presented without judgment and as viewers we can move right on to thinking about larger issues. Funny how that works.



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