Our Lady Of The Assassins
Our Lady of the Assassins (La Virgen de los Sicarios) 1999 dir. Barbet Schroeder writ. Fernando Vallejo [from his novel] cine. Rodrigo Lalinde edt. Elsa Vasquez music Jorge Arriagada cost. Monica Manlanda
star. German Jaramillo (Fernando), Anderson Ballesteros (Alexis), Juan David Restrepo (Wilmar a.k.a. The Blue Lagoon), Manuel Basquetes, Cesar Salazar, Jean Goudier, Dominique Hennequin
Studio Canal/Losange/Vertigo/Tucan production 100 mins
to love a murderer...
Medellin: the place where Pablo Escobar started out as a reseller of stolen tombstones before forming the cocaine cartel that put Colombia, S.A., on the map. A violent place, amigos. Maybe you read about it in Gabriel Marquez or saw it on T.V. You don't need to know that Barbet Schroeder lived near there for a short time as a kid to understand why he'd want to make a movie about it or why he'd be drawn to the writing of Fernando Vallejo. Remember Barfly? Where Charles Bukowski is the central character in his own desperate, drunken devolution? Our Lady of the Assassins is also about a writer on the skids -- Vallejo himself, no less. Yes, he too is from Medellin, although these days he lives and writes in Mexico.
The title, of course, is keyed to the infamous masturbation classic by Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers (1943). Reactionary, subversive for the times, this novel by the inmate of cell 426 exalts the murders and sexual proclivity of his fellow inmates as a spiritual triumph. No longer banned or even expurgated in most countries, Flowers set the standard for creative blasphemy and pornography. Now that pornography actually leads the creative arts, many criminal literates have found fame. Want to be a famous writer? Get incarcerated.
In a sense, this is what the protagonist "Fernando" does in Our Lady of the Assassins -- he incarcerates himself in the criminal city of Medellin. By his own admission, he has returned there "to die".
Fact is, you never know what his status is as a writer. He doesn't do any writing, says what he has written is "rubbish".
If the films of Godard are post-modern fantasy, then this film is post-modern reality. Call it nihilism, homoerotic fatalism... call it misanthropic, misogynist, mystically challenged... call it bullshit, call it genius. For you, no middle position is possible.
If offending the audience is art, then this is art. To use the gay sex culture as a paradigm for exploring the culture of the teenage assassins is, well, brilliant. Their fleeting lives have about as much value as the binary combatants in a video game or a film fantasy such as The 10th Victim... yet a peculiar feminine dignity becomes them when they seek love....
the most fabulous boy in Medellin
Fernando (German Jaramillo) goes to a gay party somewhere in the city. Because he's been away in Europe for 30 years, the host gives him a young boy as a present. They adjourn to the "Butterfly Room" and undress. Fernando checks out his present: nice teenage hardbody, amulet necklace, shoulder tattoo... scarred ribcage... hmm, how come? The boy says it's from a shotgun blast. A 9 millimeter automatic slips from his shorts, bounces on the floor. What's this? His "heater". Seems some dudes are in love with him... "in a hateful way."
Meet Alexis, "the most fabulous boy in Medellin".
Fernando orders him to lie down on the bed. They have sex. Afterwards Fernando hands him some money, goes back to the party to get him a drink. As F. mixes a rum and coke, he overhears some men talking. Seems the boy is the only survivor of an Escobar gang that got wiped out... has three or four murders to his credit.
Does this deter Fernando, the middle-aged sophisticate?
a walking tour of our fine churches, senor
The narrative is more or less an existential travelogue, wherein the two "lovers" walk around Medellin visiting the various churches and hilltop towns. By this method Fernando instructs Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros) in the early history ["it was just a pig farm"] and Alexis instructs him in the current [the Metrallo drug gangs & youth scene]. Their first date is a pilgrimage to the church at Sabaneto, near Fernando's old family farm, now gone. However, the old cafe is still there and the jukebox still plays "Serendito". As he listens to the music, he's overcome with sentiment, weeps.
This stroll down memory lane takes an ugly turn when they witness a shoot-out on the steps of the church. One gang is massacred by another firing automatics from motorcycles. Alexis knows the participants, of course, casually shrugs the incident off.
This establishes the pattern of violence: everytime they visit a church, death follows.
what do we do now?
Like a priest who finds love in an orphange, Fernando is both a mentor and a moral compass for the uneducated Alexis. Yet it is Alexis who actually corrupts Fernando into embracing violence, as a point comes in the increasing vigilante action whereby he is stimulated, despite his civilized, pragmatic nature.
They return to F.'s apartment. Alexis notes with amazement that "it's empty" ...and of course this is symbolism for F.'s current spiritual state. Nonetheless, it has a great view of the city. At night fireworks explode over the hilltowns. What's this? "They got another shipment of cocaine into the U.S.," Alexis says.
They leave, come back, stand in the empty room. "What do we do now?" says Alexis, as if he's in a Samuel Beckett play. .
Buy him a stereo, of course. The only thing he wants other than Calvin Kleins and a mini-Uzi.
turn that faggot off... it's more noise
Fernando has a noise phobia, which is really a cultural phobia. When Alexis' speed-metal music becomes too much, F. grabs the stereo, tosses it over the balcony. Alexis thinks this is cool... what the hell, his indulgent lover will replace it anyway. When a skinhead in an adjacent apartment angers F. with his evening drum practice, Alexis shoots the offender dead in the street. Like the stereo, problem solved. Shocked, F. asks why? Alexis shrugs, says, "He was a dickhead."
Oddly, perversely, F. carries within him the same corroding contempt. He kneels in chapels, curses the saints. He mocks the statue of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America. He sees the President of Colombia on a cafe T.V. promising better sewers, barks, "Turn that faggot off... it's more noise."
He rides in taxis, fights with the drivers because they won't turn down the samba music. The aggravating noise of disrespect and free-market anarchy is everywhere in Medellin, except at night when the city sleeps or within the dim candle lit sanctuaries of its many churches. "If there is a God, he's a scumbag," hisses F.
we were born to die
The fatalism of the young is succinctly expressed by The Pest, a young street orphan who is friendly with Alexis. He tells them he's knocked-up his girlfriend. Why? The kid will avenge him when he's dead. Does he expect to die soon? Yes, because, "we were born to die."
Another member of this street clique is called Death Boy. Tall, skinny, with long tattooed arms, he wanders the malls and streets. He wears a hooded sweat-shirt and shades like some sort of heavy-metal ghoul... and is always around to warn Alexis of an impending hit.
The hits are always the same: a speeding motorcyclist with a shooter on the pillion. Alexis faces them head-on, just like a cop on a T.V. show, legs apart, feet firmly planted, both hands on his Berreta... blows them away, yeah. One attempt is just across the street from the Fine Arts Building, where F. took piano lessons as a kid. As Alexis restores his gun to his crotch and slips away, a pregnant woman starts screaming at the sight of the mutilated assassins dead and bleeding on the sidewalk. By now inured to this daily violence, F. mocks her, says, "This isn't Switzerland, this is Medellin, Colombia!"
mockery of pregnant women
F. and Alexis regroup later in the apartment. Alexis parodies the distress of the pregnant woman. He stuffs his stomach, dances, whines hysterically. He's encouraged by F., who rants about the stupidity of these women, asserts that "having kids is a sin." So much for the Pope and the Catholic position. As they laugh and cavort, his logic about poverty and indiscriminate pregnancy might be correct -- especially in this context -- although it does sound like familiar gay propaganda.
Still, it must be noted that F. isn't devoid of some sympathy for women... it's just that he prefers them as boys. When Alexis is eventually killed, he makes a melancholy journey to the hilltop town where Alexis' mother lives with her kids above The Kingdom of Heaven grocery store, gives her some money in memory of her fallen son. She's pregnant, been deserted by her husband. Again, poverty is seen as the purveyor of reality.
the dumping of cadavers is prohibited
The natural beauty of Medellin's location in the mountains is always ironic, especially as the violence plays out. Again, they're in a taxi. Again, F. tells the driver to lower the music. The driver flips, stops, curses them as faggots, orders them out... then attacks F. with a machete. Again, Alexis is handy with the gun... and they wander off like two tourists admiring the view, the taxi abandoned, doors open, music playing, the swarthy driver sprawled on the road in his death repose.
Where are the cops? You never see them anywhere, anytime.
A sign warns that "se prohibe arrojar cadavero" but of course bodies lie festering on the rocks as the vultures circle. Ludicrously, the view from this spot is especially beautiful, as if Death has the best real-estate in town. Below, the city buzzes like any modern metropolis... new highrises, freeway, rapid rail system.
Once again, the unreality is in the contrast of the living with the casually dead.
Next, they're on the train, heading into town. Two mestizo workers curse them as cocksuckers, perhaps aggravated by F.'s sarcastic remarks. As they attack, Alexis shoots them. No respect? In Medallo, happiness is a warm gun, amigo.
Europe, elitism & civilization
Even though he's an iconoclast, F. makes a number of attempts to dissuade Alexis from violence. "Can't you distinguish between thought and action?" says F. "What separates the two is called civilization." Alexis just smiles... but agrees to leave this evil city, get a new life, despite the generation gap between him and F. The problem is to some extent racial, as poverty is mainly an Indian and mestizo problem. F. might be from Medellin, but he's white, out the colonial class. His idea of civilization is European and elitist. The implication that morality is art is there, but as such, not really explored.
They buy a new stereo, and F. plays Maria Callas singing an aria. "Sounds like she's being strangled," says Alexis. Exactly -- what is the perfection of beauty to F. is just "noise" to Alexis. Like his young contemporaries, his culture is the videogame and T.V.
symbolism of the wounded dog
There are many great scenes in this film, and the one with the wounded dog might well be the most telling. Alexis has successfully avoided assassination. It's night, they're walking along the road as the traffic roars past, when F. spots a dog lying in the big concrete culvert. The dog is whimpering, unable to escape the sewer... F. determines that it's been hit by a car, is beyond rescue. He tells Alexis to shoot it, but ironically the boy who can shoot people without regret or guilt, is unable to do a mercy killing. F. takes the gun, shoots the dog. They climb out of the sewer, continue walking.
This scene is symmetrical with the death of Alexis, and the imagery contains the entire lesson and moral of this movie. As they used their last bullets on the dog [and lost the gun in the culvert], Alexis has no defence against the next hit. All he can do is sacrifice himself to save F. by standing in front of him and taking the bullets in the chest.
F. rushes Alexis to hospital in a taxi... but the only charity he gets for this is, "How dare you drop a corpse at our hospital?"
people who aren't on T.V. don't exist
Despondent, F. drifts through nightmares and solitary walks. In the Patio del Tango, the old singer/owner Don Hannibal sees him sitting alone, comes over, says, "You're the writer... where's your son?"
Your son. F. says he left for the U.S., departs into the night.
F. is determined to track down The Blue Lagoon, the boy who killed Alexis. Eventually he finds him in the doorway of a video store... although at this time he's unaware this boy is The Blue Lagoon. Now he's known simply as "Wilmar".
Wilmar: Haven't I seen you on T.V.?
Fernando: People who aren't on T.V. don't exist.
They go for lunch. "We should indulge in every vice to make sure we're alive," says F. , repeating the well-known de Sade maxim. And so a new affair begins... with the same absurd culture of death.
F. is pissed by a whistling man on the street -- Wilmar takes out his .38, shoots him. No more whistling. They do the church routine.
Later, The Pest asks why F. is hanging out with the guy who killed Alexis? By now F. is "in love" with this boy, has agreed to buy his mother a Whirlpool fridge. F. takes him to a motel as part of his plan to kill him. When Wilmar is asleep, F. points the .38 at his head....
"The exceptional value of the work lies in its ambiguity. It appears at first to have only one subject, Fatality: the characters are puppets of destiny." So says Sartre in his essay about Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers. He could just as easily be talking about the Schroeder/Vallejo film, which isn't to say that it's a plagiarism of the Genet novel. Indeed, you might think Genet is crap, just more stream of vomit from the secular Left. There's nothing hallucinatory or narcissistic about Our Lady of the Assassins. The realism denies fiction, even if fiction is used.
Schroeder's style is always documentary, as film documentary contains the objective truth. Recently interviewed about his documentary on Idi Amin, he says, "For me, the making of non-fiction films is the same as making fiction films... all of the New Wave, which I was surrounded by, was influenced by documentary film-making."
This implies voyeurism, and there is certainly that feeling in this film. For this reason, the outstanding acting of German Jaramillo, Anderson Ballesteros and Juan David Restrepo passes unnoticed, because you don't believe it is acting.*
And Vallejo, the writer? Is this truly a self-portrait?
"To love a murderer. To love to commit a crime in cahoots with the young half-breed pictured on the cover of the torn book. I want to sing murder, for I love murderers. To sing it plainly. Without pretending, for example, that I want to be redeemed through it, though I do yearn for redemption...." (Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers)
© LR 6/02
*Filming in Medellin: interview with Barbet Schroeder
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