If you were to hear that Our Lady of the Assassins is one of the most genuinely shocking films you'll ever see, what would that suggest to you? Some new level of extreme violence and explicit sex, no doubt. But that's not what's at play in this eerily cool melodrama set in the steaming, teeming streets of Medellín, Colombia. There's violence, to be sure, but nothing beyond what you see in other thrillers. As for sex, while the plot revolves around an affair between a cynical, late-middle-aged gay man and a beyond-amoral teenage hustler, physical couplings are kept to a minimum. What's truly upsetting about Barbet Schroeder's film, adapted from Fernando Vallejo's autobiographical novel, is the clear-eyed, resolute way it offers us access to a world that few outside it know of -- or would want to know. It's a world where the phrase "life is cheap" is literal rather than figurative.
The film's central character -- he can scarcely be called a hero -- is the world-weary Fernando (Germán Jaramillo), though "world-weary" doesn't begin to express his demeanor. Every bit of his bearing suggests a man who's not only been around, but who is so marked by his experiences that he can't bring himself to speak of them directly. Visiting an old friend at a party in which wealthy older men are offered young street hustlers like so many canapés on a plate, he makes it clear that, from his vantage point, his life is winding down. That's one reason why his taking up with Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros), a lad young enough to be his grandson, raises fewer eyebrows than it might have in a different setting. Bringing Alexis back to his large, conspicuously empty apartment, Fernando indulges the boy's interest in cheap pop music until in frustration he tosses the stereo out the window. But he declines the lad's repeated request for a new mini-Uzi. It turns out that Alexis is no "innocent" led astray by a corrupt adult. He's a hired killer for the drug cartels -- executing select targets with the offhandedness most people would have when killing a bug.
At first Fernando seems only half aware of his sinister protégé. Commenting on the passing parade of poverty as they visit various churches, making rueful comments about politics as he and Alexis watch the fireworks displays that signal that a major shipment of narcotics has made it into the United States, or complaining about cab drivers who insist on playing their radios at full blast, Fernando appears to be a man totally wrapped up in himself. But his outlook changes when Alexis shoots a neighbor whose drum playing annoyed Fernando so much he wished him dead. Clearly Alexis has no use for metaphor -- or any means of conceiving of it.
But no sooner does Fernando notice this than the heat starts closing in on Alexis -- and the motorbike-riding gunmen who have been his most frequent targets fatally return fire. Too startled to grieve, Fernando wanders about the city in a daze, visiting Alexis' mother -- as if in search of a meaning to the boy's brief life. And then he takes up with yet another teenage hit man. But this time the relationship isn't quite as easygoing. The new lover has a connection to the old one that gives even the jaded Fernando pause -- as we in the audience gasp at the poetic injustice of it all.
Most viewers, however, took that pause right from the start. By refusing to sensationalize his material and by treating it as coolly matter-of-factly as if he were relating the private lives of a middle-class couple from the suburbs, Schroeder has made a film about the Third World that challenges the complacency of the First World at every turn. The supple, high-definition video imagery Schroeder utilizes helps him realize his goal. Each shot is precise, yet seems to linger for only a few seconds on the screen. But what impresses the most is the filmmaker's agility in rendering the horror inherent in his subject without prurience or casual disdain. A scene in which a teenage compatriot of Alexis passes out pastries to the poor, clearly aping a priest dispensing communion wafers, is done so simply that it trumps anything Buñuel has offered up as visual "blasphemy." Likewise, when this same youth speaks joyfully of having impregnated his girlfriend so he will have someone to "avenge" his death, it has the impact of a blow across the viewer's face.
Born in Tehran, Schroeder spent his childhood in Medellín before his family moved to France. There he made a name for himself as a producer (most of Eric Rohmer's films) and as an occasional actor (he gives an exceptionally elegant performance as a ghost in Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating). He then struck out on his own as a director of offbeat features like More (starring Mimsy Farmer as a beautiful heroin addict) and Maitresse (with Bulle Ogier as a dominatrix who brings Gérard Depardieu under her spell), and documentaries (Koko the Talking Gorilla, Idi Amin Dada). It's Idi Amin Dada that Our Lady of the Assassins has the most in common with. In fact, one might call it a return to form after Schroeder's long sojourn in America, where he directed films both engagingly quirky (Barfly, Reversal of Fortune) and relatively mainstream (Kiss of Death, Single White Female). For in this drug-cartel Death in Venice (where Ashenbach gets lucky and Tadzio packs heat), he has offered the finest rendition yet of the film he's always endeavored to make -- one that takes you somewhere you'd never dream of going, and cuts right into your heart.
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