With a checkered career that includes the celebrated Reversal of Fortune,
the cult classic Barfly, the documentary Koko, and the Hollywood thriller
Single White Female, Barbet Schroeder has finally made a film that is distinctive and compelling beyond what many directors could produce. As shocking as any avant garde film with more believable harsh reality than a hundred gritty urban dramas, Our Lady of the Assassins is a rare sort of film, the kind that captivates the viewer from the first scene.
Essentially the story is simple: an aging writer, Fernando, returns from travels abroad to his native Colombian town to, as he says, die. He is immediately paired with a young street thug named Alexis. The two form an amorous relationship and tour the surrounding towns absorbing the history, beauty and extreme violence. Alexis reveals to Fernando that he has been sentenced by a rival gang and spends his days with Fernando ducking bullets and randomly killing people. Taxi drivers who refuse to lower their radios get shot, riders on a metra train who get in arguments with Fernando end up dead. All of this bloodshed is unleashed from Alexis’ gun without a moment of hesitation and without any of the tough guy banter that precedes Hollywood action unreality.
At first Fernando claims to be opposed to all violence, but when the rival gangs threaten to take his beloved Alexis away, he goes out and gets his young lover enough bullets to keep him “protected” against seemingly anything. After the third or fourth random shooting, Fernando grows beyond indifferent. As Alexis flees the scene of a killing, Fernando asks a screaming witness, “Why are you crying? People get killed here every day.” The violence makes a strange sense in this movie, and one gets the impression that, along with poverty and religion, it is the predominate factor in the everyday life of this town.
Along with the savagery of the story there are moments of sad beauty, especially in the scenes where crack addicts and male prostitutes inhabit the glorious churches that Fernando, an alleged atheist, frequents on a near daily basis. The cafes are filled with music that transports Fernando, as well as the viewer, to sad, nostalgic places. These poignant, achingly beautiful moments are punctuated by the shootings, as if to make them more beautiful by juxtaposing them with barbarism.
The movie itself is an example of guerilla filmmaking, as it was shot on digital video without a permit on the streets of Colombia. Perhaps this unusual approach aids in creating the feeling of desperation that runs throughout the story. Knowing what chances Schroeder took in making this daring movie, one would hope that a making of feature or an interview with the director might be added to the DVD. Alas we have only the movie itself, thankfully presented in widescreen. A glimpse into the making of would have been nice, but perhaps it is best to let the movie stand on its own.
Strange, powerful, extreme and yet still subtle, Our Lady of the Assassins is the first great film of the Twenty-First century. It contains more direct audacity and symbolism than any movie I have seen in a long time. It is a story of loss, memory, and the questions of loyalty, redemption and love. A rare gem to be seen at all costs.