The seductive lure of vengeance, and its ultimate emptiness, are such well-worn cinematic staples that even an authentic sense of place and a very personal story from Colombian director Laura Mora cannot quite overcome the familiarity of her heartfelt but hesitant sophomore feature, “Killing Jesús.” Yet this low-key morality fable, built out of the tragedy that was the murder of her own father, is clearly an act of exorcism by the emerging filmmaker, and as its Eroski Youth Prize in San Sebastian suggests, its humanist message should play well with university-aged audiences and those with an interest in Latin American social issues.
After a brief prologue, in which a young woman, spattered in blood, scrambles up a hillside with a gun in her hand to gaze out over the sprawling city of Medellín, we’re properly introduced to Paula (Natasha Jaramillo, a first-time performer like most of the cast). A 22-year-old photography student, she’s at a meeting of a campus activist group and, frustrated by all the speechifying, she’s urging her peers toward more dramatic protest. Clad in faded T-shirt and old jeans, with her waist-length hair pulled back from her face by a worn-through baseball cap, Paula is the model of a streetwise tough-girl, so it’s something of a surprise that she’s also the daughter of a relatively well-to-do political science professor at the university.
On their way home that day, however, her father is gunned down, in a quick, bluntly effective scene that Mora mounts with remarkable dexterity. As Paula bends down to tend to her camera bag, her father gets out of the car to open the house gate and a sudden blizzard of gunfire erupts, shattering the windshield. Just before she leaps from the vehicle to discover her dad already dead, Paula catches a glimpse of the gunman, a lean young man roughly her own age, speeding away, blank-faced, on the back of a cheap motorcycle. He doesn’t see her.
A couple of months of futile encounters with the police follow before Paula loses faith in them entirely. “What surname do you have to have in this town for you to do something?” she rails at the officer in charge. But though this points to a potentially thorny examination of institutional bias against the more privileged members of Colombian society, it’s an area left frustratingly underdeveloped.
Instead, the personal revenge/redemption story soon kicks into gear when, some weeks later, Paula spots the young hitman, Jesús (Giovany Rodriguez) dancing drunkenly at a nightclub. She strikes up an acquaintance with him — easy to do because Jesús is sullenly attracted to her — and while she tries to scrape together the money for a gun of her own, she follows the old adage of keeping your enemies close. In the course of this subterfuge, her mission of revenge becomes that much more complicated as she gets to know Jesús and come under his protection. He even teaches her how to shoot, with the simple, chilling words, “Just aim with hate in your heart.”
The handheld photography from James L. Brown gives a gritty cast to the Medellín slums in which Jesús lives. And on the rare occasion Mora and co-writer Alonso Torres’ terse script requires it, there are some more impressionistic sequences, as when Paula, still beset with grief, rides silently in a car with her revelatory friends. In wide-angle and location shots, “Killing Jesús” unfolds in the naturalist aesthetic we’ve come to expect of social-realist cinema, but the filmmaking feels shy of faces. Mora’s approach is not quite bold enough to push through Paula’s cascade of hair and wall of defenses to gain entry into her psyche. It’s a distance that’s exacerbated by the inexperienced Jaramillo, who has an air of diffidence about meeting the camera’s gaze, which makes scenes in which she needs to be more demonstrative, such as when she tears apart Jesús’ dingy one-room dwelling, feel a bit forced.
Mostly, this unsteadiness means “Killing Jesus” unfolds at a remove except when Rodriguez, a more confident, complex presence, shares the screen with Jaramillo, as Paula and Jesús mistrustfully try to work their relationship out. “You’re the strangest thing I ever met in my life” says Jesús finally, after all the fronting and surly flirting is spent and the darkness of his lifestyle looks set to inevitably engulf him.
The conclusion of the story teaches too neat a lesson about the cycle of violence and the karmic nature of cosmic justice. But then, the sincere, fitfully insightful “Killing Jesús” is most valuable not for the cold dish of revenge it serves, but as a snapshot of a doomed generation of the Colombian criminal underclass who may logically understand that they’re fated to die young, but still walk and talk and pull wheelies on their motorbikes as though they were immortal.