"He's lucky it's our Lady's day, or I'd have offed him."
Raymond Chandler once wrote, "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean." I'm guessing Chandler never took a stroll down the mean streets of Medellín, Colombia.
Facts of the Case
Fernando Vallejo (Germán Jaramillo) left Medellín many years ago, but now he's back: "to die," he says, though he isn't sick of anything but his own decadent life. On his first night back in the old hometown, Fernando hooks up with a young male prostitute named Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros). The two strike up a romance, and before long Fernando moves Alexis into his sparsely appointed flat ("It's empty," Alexis says when first they enter; "There's a table right there, and a bed in the next room," retorts Fernando) and indoctrinates him into crass consumerism by adding a TV and stereo to the furnishings.
But Alexis is more than just a teenager on the make—he's a cold-blooded killer. To put it bluntly, he's a one-boy Manson family. Alexis guns down a neighbor whose only crime was keeping the couple awake at night playing his drum kit, then is perplexed when Fernando expresses disapproval ("he had it coming," Alexis says with a shrug). He blows away a cab driver in an argument over how loud the music in the cab should be. He shoots two men during a verbal altercation on a streetcar. Fernando tries to reason with him—vainly attempting to explain the difference between what we think in our heads and what we act out in the real world—but it's plain to see that the young man doesn't get it and isn't impressed by or worried about the fact that he doesn't get it. He's the product of urban culture in a city of four million people where oppressive poverty is the norm, where urchins huff glue on the streetcorners, where the cocaine trade permeates every fabric of life (the drug lords set off spectacular fireworks displays every time their operatives sneak another shipment of the white stuff past U.S. Customs), and where human life is so cheap that youth gangs blaze away at one another on the steps of a church, with no thought for the safety of passing worshipers.
Fernando, "Colombia's last grammarian" as he refers to himself, lectures Alexis at length about his philosophy (a wordy spin on "life is pain") and tries to instill some intellectual culture in the boy. An attempt to wean Alexis off the hardcore metal music he favors and onto Maria Callas fails miserably—"she sounds like she's being strangled," says Alexis, and you get the sense he just might be speaking from experience. The two men take long walks together around the city, as Fernando waxes verbose about the days of his childhood and Alexis keeps an eye over his shoulder for a band of thugs eager to put a bullet in his young hide. (They try, repeatedly, usually presaged by the appearance of a hollow-eyed youth called "Deathboy" who warns Alexis of impending danger.) They pass what was once a park that now bears a sign reading, "No Dumping of Corpses," which is of course laden with decaying human flesh specifically because the sign says "No." (I'm reminded of a photo my wife and I took on a Hawaiian vacation years ago, of a car in a garage parked rear-first immediately under the stenciled legend, "Do Not Back In.")
But for all their differences, Fernando and Alexis have more in common than it appears. Though Fernando by his own admission could never kill another person, it is he, and not Alexis, who has the will to euthanize an injured dog they encounter on one of their random walks. And when Alexis guns down two would-be assassins in front of Fernando's boyhood home, all the older man can say is, "They got blood on my house." More blood is forthcoming, though, because the shooters who want Alexis for capping one of their homeboys will not be denied their revenge. Alexis is murdered, Fernando consoles himself with another adolescent hoodlum named Wilmar (Juan David Restrepo) who turns out to be one of Alexis's killers, and the grim dog-eat-dog of life in today's Medellín continues.
Barbet Schroeder is one of the world's most schizophrenic filmmakers, capable of both brilliance (for example, his wry take on the Claus von Bulow story, Reversal of Fortune) and importance (his 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada is a one-of-a-kind unblinking stare into the eyes of egomania) on the one hand, and cynically commercial drivel on the other (Single White Female, anyone? Desperate Measures?). Whether you admire Our Lady of the Assassins or are revolted by it, you have to concede Schroeder grudging credit: it's difficult to imagine a less commercial concept for a motion picture, or a director trying any harder to make an interesting film from that concept.
A sizable portion of viewers will never get past the basic elements of the story: homosexual relationships between a middle-aged man and teenaged boys in an environment reduced by the cocaine trade to an inhuman sinkhole of amorality and quick, brutal death. Of course, the film isn't really about homosexuality or, for that matter, the drug trade as such. It's Schroeder's sad commentary on the nation in which he grew up, a nation consuming its children and its future just so a few gatos gordos can become billionaires. Colombia has degenerated into a place where nothing matters and no one cares that it doesn't, as witnessed by the perpetual ennui of this film's lead characters.
The problem for the viewer is that Schroeder doesn't give us much reason to care, either. Fernando and his boy-toys are such thoroughly unsympathetic figures that we can't embrace them, much less weep for their homeland. This weakness centers on Fernando himself, who begins the film a cold, detached man and never really changes. Perhaps had he returned to Medellín a vibrant, joyful individual filled with the hope and promise of his globetrotting life experience, only to have that hope shattered by the violence and depravity around him, we could experience that descent with him and, in the end, share his sense of loss. Or, alternatively, had Fernando begun his journey jaded and unfeeling but found his humanity rekindled by his outrage at what the druglords have wrought and the ruin of all he once held dear, we also could be stirred. Instead we're crippled in our emotional response by Fernando's (and Alexis's, and Wilmar's, both of whom commit murder as casually as most American kids order fries at McDonald's) casual resignation at the state of affairs—if they're never angered or aggrieved, why should we be? In the end, I wasn't.
Also, in the last reel Schroeder dabbles in dream imagery that clashes with the heightened realism of the rest of the picture. Maybe he was afraid his film wasn't yet arty enough for the poseurs at the festivals. Maybe he had a few extra pesos in the kitty at the end of the shoot and just decided to blow it all on some special effects. Whatever he was thinking, it was a bad thought.
Schroeder shot Our Lady of the Assassins in high-definition digital video, which lends the film that hyper-realistic starkness that videotaped TV shows have. It's the right choice for what he's trying to accomplish: the film has a vibrant, immediate look that film would only have smoothed and prettified. The presentation on DVD is sharp and pristine, with wonderfully lifelike color. As one would expect given the original recording medium, there's no evidence of the artifacting that plagues film-to-digital transfer. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix, like the picture, is clear and naturalistic, though oddly thin (maybe it's just that my Hollywood-corrupted ear expects more resonant booming from onscreen gunfire). It's perfectly fine for this film; nothing that goes on here requires an abundance of audio pyrotechnics. Jorge Arriagada's score is subtle and fills the soundstage nicely.
The dialogue track is in the original Spanish with English subtitles. Paramount—DVD-challenged as always—has chosen (ineptly) to make the subtitles irreversible. My Spanish is rudimentary at best, but I often like to listen to a foreign-language film with the text shut off, to see whether the actors can still involve me in their story when I have only their inflections and body language to follow. I'd imagine those fluent in Español would like to just be able to eliminate the distraction. Paramount doesn't permit the viewer that option here. They paid good money for those subtitles, doggonit, and you're gonna watch 'em whether you want to or don't. And again typical of a Paramount release, there's not extra one to be had here. Even a few screenfuls of press-kit fodder describing the unusual lengths to which Schroeder went to capture these images (he and his cast and crew filmed guerilla-style on the streets of Medellín, often pausing just long enough to nail a single take before speeding away again for their own safety) would have been welcome. A commentary track…but now I'm just talking crazy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film contains a number of seemingly oxymoronic juxtapositions of the sacred and the profane, beginning with its title—a reference to the church Fernando and Alexis visit on their first day together and on other occasions afterward. In another instance, Alexis describes to Fernando the ritual by which Medellín's gang members douse their bullets in holy water so they will fly straighter and kill more quickly. That these two men, as amoral and spiritually bankrupt as they appear, are drawn to religious symbolism is a reflection of that inner something in the human spirit that searches for something greater and more powerful than ourselves. That we humans so often superficialize our response to that inner longing without truly being changed by it may be Schroeder's most cogent observation.
In the immortal words of Jimmy Durante, "I'm surrounded by assassins." Barbet Schroeder's homecoming is not entertainment, exactly, but it's something. If only it rang less hollowly. You probably already know from what's written above whether this film would interest or disgust you (or both). It's not my cup of Colombian supremo, but your mileage may vary.
Paramount is sentenced to a one-way hike up a mountain with Juan Valdez for this inexcusable featureless release with its burned-in subtitles. (I suspect they thought the subtitles were an extra feature.) Barbet Schroeder is released on his own recognizance and instructed to stay off the streets of Medellín. We're adjourned.
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