The change that a generation has wrought on the now-infamous Colombian city of Medellin is brought home in personal and ultimately quite affecting terms in “Our Lady of the Assassins.” Barbet Schroeder’s first non-American film in 16 years feels like a rejuvenation; his adaptation of Fernando Vallejo’s 1994 novel has a naturalistic freedom and ease that is both refreshing and direct in the way it tells a deeply disturbing story. After doing the fest rounds, this mature, well-observed film should find a perhaps limited but responsive audience in discerning markets.
Semi-autobiographical yarn by Vallejo, who was born in Medellin in 1942 and then moved to Italy before settling in Mexico, begins with a middle-aged gay writer named Fernando (German Jaramillo) returning to his birthplace after three decades abroad. The city of 4 million is nothing like the idyllic place he grew up in, having turned into the drug capital of the world, a city where assaults, kidnappings and murder are everyday occurrences.
Heading to a gay party, Fernando meets a street kid, Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros), and they immediately launch into an affair. Asked by the teenager why he’s come back, Fernando replies, “To die,” explaining that the rest of his family is dead and that “what I had to do in life I already did,” including having slept with more than 1,000 boys. Still, he’s a bit startled to learn that Alexis has killed three or four people because he’s involved in the gang wars that touch the lives of everyone in the city.
In a casual manner that makes the viewer feel like a welcome companion, the film has Fernando showing Alexis around the Medellin he knew growing up. After he absorbs the ghastly changes that have occurred in the interim, the man ruefully remarks, “You’ll never know the happiness I knew when I grew up.”
But Fernando is hardly prone to nostalgic melancholy; he’s acerbic, irreverent, irreligious and surprisingly accepting of the younger generation, except for its taste in music. When he brings Alexis back to the high-rise apartment he’s inherited from his late, unlamented sister, he can’t tolerate for long the rock music the kid likes to play at full blast.
Indeed, it’s Fernando’s irritation with modern music that precipitates the violence that brings home to the writer the moral bankruptcy of the society he’s re-entered, as well as the short fuse on which Alexis and his contemporaries operate.
But despite Alexis’ casual violence, and his status as a marked man — every time he goes out, he has to be on the lookout for assassins from rival gangs — there’s something sweet about the kid, and Fernando falls in love with him. They continue their wanderings, with visits to churches, nightspots and other places the writer knew as a child, sparking sharply written ruminations.
As Alexis persists in mowing down his adversaries before they do the same to him, Fernando, who already hates “breeders” for bringing “more scum into the world,” sees his moral code adjusting to his new surroundings as he begins to accept the kill-or-be-killed basis of the gangster way of life. It all ends on an almost unavoidable note of fatalism.
It could easily be argued that the film too squarely hits its meanings on their heads, that it’s told from a sophisticated, middle-aged Euro perspective and so on. But the generational and educational gaps create a resonant context from which to view the madness that has overtaken Medellin; the void between the old and new ways of life summons up a richness of feeling that rests not only in disgust and horror but also in memory and experience.
“You can’t go home again” takes on a whole new meaning when the place you return to is, by any reasonable standard, wholly unlivable.
The memories, story and central character are all Vallejo’s, but Schroeder, who may be the cinema’s most truly cosmopolitan director, spent ages 6 through 10 in Colombia (in Bogota), has returned there often and clearly connects to the material in a personal way. As he did with Charles Bukowski in “Barfly,” Schroeder here centers on a highly individualistic writer and has successfully summoned up that author’s world.
Pic was shot on location under difficult circumstances, with the crew requiring heavy security at all times. A city that few viewers are likely to visit is evoked with great vividness, and Schroeder chose to shoot in High Def in order to halve his production schedule.
Resulting transfer looks generally OK except for two elements — the generally flat, unvariegated flesh tones, and a visual jumpiness that often occurs when the camera pans or tilts or when vehicles go by at certain speeds. Latter stems from problems in transferring the 30 frames-per-second HD700 format to 24 fps 35mm film.
Colombian theater actor Jaramillo gives Fernando a mordant, brainy and fearless personality that is impressive and winning. It’s easy to believe, as claimed, that local kids Ballesteros and Juan David Restrepo, who plays another street kid Fernando befriends, grew up on the fringes of gang life; they’re both completely credible representations of their milieu and rep decent foils for Fernando’s barbs and affection. Jorge Arriagada’s traditional score amplifies the complex emotional texture.