To say filmmaker Barbet Schroeder has had a varied career grossly
understates the reality, and viewers shouldn't dismiss him on the basis
of his lightweight 2002 release, Murder by Numbers. Most of his work demands much deeper thoughts, including Our Lady of the Assassins (La Virgen de los sicarios), a provocative study about life in the crime-infested hellhole of Medellin, Columbia.
Born in Teheran in 1941, Schroeder's film roots germinated from the creative forces of the French New Wave. After studying philosophy at the Sorbonne and writing criticism for the Cahiers du Cinema, he assisted both Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer with film projects in the early 1960's before forming his own production company in 1964 and directing his first feature at the end of the decade. In the seventies, he recorded an intriguing documentary on General Idi Amin Dada and filmed a mythological story about paradise in New Guinea called La Vallee, complete with Pink Floyd music. In the late 1980's Schroeder successfully embarked on American projects like Barfly and Reversal of Fortune, which gained an Oscar nomination for directing. Moving away from Hollywood's deep pockets, Schroeder returns to independent filmmaking in Our Lady of the Assassins, shooting non-actors guerrilla style with high definition video equipment.
Giving the film a documentary feel, the high definition video pushes Medellin into the limelight as the actual lead "character." Despite the city's great beauty and cheap hotel rooms, you won't find vacation packages to Medellin at Travelocity. Formerly home to famous drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, this city has become renowned for a trinity of evils: the kidnapping, cocaine, and murder capital of the world! Drive by murders on motorcycles became so commonplace, the government banned double riding on the cycles, as if that would make a difference—law enforcement is so overwhelmed, police protection seems non-existent. If anarchy appeals to you, this is the place—though you may not live long.
And that's why 60-year old homosexual poet Fernando (German Jaramillo) returns home. After a fruitful career, the people he loved have all died, so the much traveled writer returns to his sister's barren apartment to die. In a city where hospitals angrily berate bereaved for bringing in "another corpse" and signs stating "no corpse dumping" are routinely ignored, death is an everyday casual experience.
Prepared to die, Fernando possesses only table and chairs and a bed, and he routinely visits local churches to gaze at the icons and symbols. Praying is out of the question since he doesn't believe in God, and the bloody images of Christ bring more associations with the slain youth on Medellin's streets than closeness to the Divine. Before he passes on, Fernando seeks diversion or perhaps as lasting a relationship as possible in this nightmarish locale. Long attracted to teenaged boys, he revisits a male bordello and soon hooks up with handsome 16 year old Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros) after bedding him.
Young Alexis is a bit freaked at the barrenness of Fernando's apartment, so immediately Fernando buys an AIWA boom box and television to keep his young lover entertained. This pattern is repeated once again when Fernando begins a relationship with Wilmar (Juan David Restrepo), leading to questions whether the teens care about the 60-year old writer or whether they see him as a "sugar daddy." Their age difference is amplified by other contrasts—while Alexis loves head banging thrash metal, Fernando thrives on silence, bird songs, and Maria Callas arias. Fernando desires peace and abhors violence, yet he finds himself immersed in a chaotic environment of continual carnage, and this reaches him intimately through his young lover—without pause, Alexis "offs" anyone that irritates, whether a threatening pedestrian, a machete swinging taxi driver, a noisy neighbor, or the cycle riding gangsters gunning for him.
Relationship movies rely on the tension and chemistry between the romantically linked characters, and always presents a formidable challenge. The non-professionals here struggle mightily to make this relationship believable, but it doesn't work completely—both boys rely mostly on gazing up at Fernando with blank stares, with Alexis habitually laughing at his every nihilistic quip. In lieu of the on screen chemistry Schroeder effectively uses theatrical devices to establish Alexis' growing love for his mentor. The strongest scenes include Alexis' boom box destruction, the intimate drink/kiss exchange, and his instinctive prevention of Fernando's suicide. Cynical Fernando stands out as the most believable character, as a lonely man nearing the end of his life—at once idealistic, but now facing the grim reality of a senseless world.
So even though the teenage characters don't quite stand on their own as flesh and blood people to care about like the similarly drawn underclass in Los Olvidados and City of God, their dire situation becomes very believable given the nature of the real star of the film—the city of Medellin itself. Nestled between lush green mountains its three million citizens inhabit one of the world's most beautiful locales, notable for its orchids and beautiful cathedrals but most famous for its drug trade and murder rate. Medellin displays this bi-polar nature through Schroeder's perceptive camera. Our Lady of the Assassins wisely chooses to present its case without preaching, without providing solutions, without judging its characters—because that is the beauty and the ugly reality of the place. Originally named after a pigsty, young people now refer to the city as Medallo or Metrallo, appropriately derived after the word metralleta (machine gun)
Against the backdrop of a lawless city that nightly shoots off fireworks to celebrate successful drug deliveries to the United States, a vast cathedral that invokes images of Jungle Fever's opium den, and several pointless gang murders, Schroeder leaves us with a harrowing portrait of humanity well worth checking out.