"Our Lady of the Assassins" is one of those movies that falls into my oversimplified guide to foreign film viewing: if it's a French language film, it's about sex; an Italian language film, love; and a Spanish language film, violence. "Our Lady of the Assassins" is in Spanish, set in Medellin, Colombia. It is most definitely about violence.
Director Barbet Schroeder has crafted a film based on the writing of Fernando Vallejo, and appropriately, the main character is a middle-aged writer named Fernando (German Jaramillo). After several years of travelling, he has returned to Medellin disenchanted and ambivalently suicidal. At a party he meets a teenage boy named Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros) and after a sexual romp, the two become lovers.
As the title suggests, Schroeder is fascinated with exploring the dark connections between the Catholic Church and the profusion of street violence in Medellin. Fernando and Alexis wander around the dimly-lit, grim churches of the city, weaving among the statues of Mary, the junkies and the prostitutes.
Alexis, in between stints of shooting people, describes the process by which bullets are "blessed." In one of the most interesting scenes, a young boy called "The Pest," doles out pastries to hungry street people by making them line up and kneel, in a strange variant of the communion service.
This weird preoccupation with religion leads to lots of vaguely philosophical rumination from the characters and adds an even more terrible element to all the shooting.
It is safe to say that watching this movie will quench all desire to ever visit Medellin, a city where, when people fall dead on the street, the corner drugstore owner merely comments, "Wow, we're setting a record today." Or when a man is shot in broad daylight and a woman begins to cry, Fernando bluntly says, "This isn't Switzerland."
Throughout the movie, Fernando has a bad habit of picking fights with bystanders and taxi drivers, whereupon Alexis usually decides to shoot them for their transgressions. But this is no "Natural Born Killers" -- as the pair racks up death after death, they just seem increasingly exhausted, not exhilarated. Their relationship seems to be founded on weary desperation.
My main complaint for this movie is that Schroeder occasionally inserts a short "dream sequence" in which the images are faintly reminiscent of those in that weird part of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." It just seems too garish for what in most ways is an understated movie.
There are also bound to be complaints about the philosophizing in this movie, but for the most part it was remarkably well-done. Sure, Fernando's world-weary, intellectual prose might be too familiar, but his actual ruminations are marked by fresh humor and aplomb. His observations mostly manage to seem natural, although his diction is occasionally forced.
"Our Lady of the Assassins" is a film about death, decay and God (or the lack thereof). I don't know exactly what I think of this movie, but in all fairness, it seems all the characters are poised at a similar suspension of judgment -- I'm ambivalent about a film about ambivalence.
Go see it for yourself and decide.
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