La virgen de los sicarios
starring Germán Jaramillo, Anderson Ballesteros, Juan David Restrepo, Manuel Busquets
screenplay by Fernando Vallejo
directed by Barbet Schroeder
by Walter Chaw At his best (Barfly, Idi Amin Dada, Reversal of Fortune), Barbet Schroeder is mercilessly unblinking. He delves into the sundry with such a dedicated nihilism that it makes the horror of his situations palatable somehow. The same kind of thing Cronenberg does with grotesquery, Schroeder does with atrocity: we are led behind the curtain to where the real ugliness lies with a casual air that defuses sensationalism and murders prurience through protagonists--at least the best ones (Charles Bukowski, Idi Amin, Claus von Bulow)--drawn from the insipid impiety of real life. That's perhaps the source of my discomfort with the anti-hero of Our Lady of the Assassins (La virgen de los sicarios"), an only semi-autobiographical writer first brought to life in Fernando Vallejo's 1994 novel of the same name and now embodied in the lanky frame of Latin actor Germán Jaramillo. He is an existentialist philosopher torn by the eternal conflict between passion for life and passion for destruction, but he has no grounding in the mundane that would make the character something more than a wandering gadfly. If Vallejo, a jaded chronicler of a train-wreck who has no connection to the evolving horror, is the projection of a first-world consciousness observing the travails of a disintegrating third world, the greatest irony of the failure and success of the film is in its own triumphant disconnection.
Alexis solves every minor disagreement like the feral gunsel he's been bred to be--we understand his background more when a child no more than thirteen proudly boasts of having impregnated his girlfriend so that there will be someone to avenge his inevitable murder. Glued to Vallejo's side by what passes for love in a centerless world, Alexis is incapable of the self-examination and metaphorical maundering that constitutes the whole of his older lover's paradigm. If Schroeder's intention is to present in the main coupling a literal representation of the dichotomy already clarified by the title and the leaden juxtapositions of Catholic imagery with anarchic street violence, he's succeeded only insomuch as a blatant conceit can. We snap to attention when a cruel twist of fate reveals a secret about the lover he takes after Alexis's luck has run out--perhaps this will be the moment where Vallejo revises his position on the futility of struggle. Alas, when pushed, Vallejo reveals himself to be Prufrock, all coffee spoons and regret. A powerful archetype, no question, but one without the power to lend relevancy to the revelation that Colombia is an anarchic hellhole.
There is an undeniable power in the film's frank depiction of depraved hopelessness and the blithe violence springing from ritual and boredom, and at its best, Our Lady of the Assassins plays a little like the apocalyptic languor of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. At its worst, the film slathers on the symbolism and unabashed pontification with such relentlessness that its sullen drumbeat obscures its message. Our Lady of the Assassins never feels as though it's going to end, and although its thoughts on the fruitless mendacity of love and death in Medellin serve the torpor, the point is made long before the assiduous litany of evil in the doldrums has run its course. While Our Lady of the Assassins is the best film that Barbet Schroeder has made since Reversal of Fortune, the simplicity of its message can't support the weight of its finger-wagging proselytizing. Originally published: October 5, 2001.