With "Our Lady of the Assassins," director Barbet Schroeder has returned to the city of his youth, where at age 7 he witnessed an all-too-prophetic beheading in the streets during a period of political turmoil in 1948. Like Schroeder, the film's hero, Fernando (German Jaramillo), has returned to Medellin, Colombia, after a long absence to discover a city still beautiful in many ways but with so many shootings that people have grown inured to death.
Adapted from Fernando Vallejo's 1994 novel, "La Virgen de los Sicarios," "Our Lady of the Assassins" is the odyssey of a writer who has grown tired of living only to come alive wholly unexpectedly and in the most perilous of circumstances. Through the unfolding of Fernando's self-discovery, we witness civilization crumbling, corrupted thoroughly by the drug cartels and widespread poverty. It's hard to imagine a place on Earth more dangerous or where murder is so commonplace. The young men and boys who maintain a reign of terror in the streets understand only that their existence is a matter of kill or be killed, and that they must be armed and ready to shoot at all times. The concepts of right and wrong and of guilt and innocence have been rendered beside the point. The city has become a place where taking the trouble to express concern for a wounded animal or even one's own mother can prove fatal. Schroeder leaves the audience wondering whether it has just witnessed a vision of urban life everywhere in the not too distant future--and which is already disturbingly close to reality in the gang-ridden sections of many American cities today.
Arriving in Medellin and settling in the sparsely furnished high-rise apartment he has inherited from his sister, Fernando, a gay man in his 50s, visits the apartment of his old friend Alfonso (Manuel Busquets). It's crammed with antiques and older men sizing up a flock of hustlers, some of whom appear to be decidedly underage. The hospitable Alfonso wastes no time in pairing off Fernando with Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros), who looks to be no older than 16.
Alexis and Fernando hit it off from the start. Indifferent to convention and with plenty of time and money, Fernando captures Alexis' imagination, and much to the man's surprise, Alexis in turn captures his heart without a trace of calculation.
Fernando has a desire to visit the places of his youth, only to realize that since he last saw them, his grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters have all died. Fernando, a philosopher, a poet and an intellectual given to witty and caustic observations, is a savage critic of the church yet has a spiritual yearning that repeatedly compels him to visit the city's magnificent palaces of worship, some of which have become trading floors for sex and drug deals.
Shot guerrilla-style by cinematographer Rodrigo Lalinde, "Our Lady of the Assassins" has a raw, urgent feel, a sense of rush punctuated by contemplative vistas of the city keyed to Fernando's musings about the terrible contradictions of the city he has always loved. From Jaramillo, Colombia's foremost stage actor and impresario, and from Ballesteros, who never before acted, Schroeder wins equally memorable portrayals.
As the film, with its haunting score and inspired use of popular music, builds flawlessly to its resounding conclusion, it is accompanied by a pitch-dark humor that grows out of the sheer absurdity of the city's daily body count. It is the bleakly perceptive kind of humor that has coursed through all of Schroeder's films, from "Maitresse" to "Reversal of Fortune," which brought Jeremy Irons an Oscar as Claus von Blow, and his film of Charles Bukowski's "Barfly." Barbet Schroeder has made many provocative films in many places but none as profound in impact as "Our Lady of the Assassins."
MPAA-rated: R, for strong violence, language, sexuality and drug content. Times guidelines: the film is far too violent, intense and adult for children.
'Our Lady of the Assassins'
German Jaramillo: Fernando
Anderson Ballesteros: Alexis
Juan David Restrepo: Wilmar
Manuel Busquets: Alfonso
A Paramount Classics release of a co-production of Les Films du Losange/Le Studio Canal Plus/Vertigo Films & Tucan Producciones Cinematograficas. With the participation of Canal Plus. Director Barbet Schroeder. Producers Margaret Menegoz and Schroeder. Co-producer Jaime Osorio. Screenplay Fernando Vallejo, based on his novel "La Virgen de los Sicarios." Cinematographer Rodrigo Lalinde. Editor Elsa Vasquez. Music Jorge Arriagada. Sets and costumes Monica Marulanda. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
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