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'Our Lady Of The Assassins'

'Assassins' peeks into the violent world of Colombian druglords

Friday, November 02, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

At a social reunion of druglords in Medellin, young Alexis is old Fernando's door prize. Hail Colombia, gem of the cocaine ocean, where pushers and killers galore pray to "Our Lady of the Assassins."

'Our Lady Of The Assassins'

RATING: R for extreme violence, language, sexuality and drug content

STARRING: German Jaramillo, Anderson Ballesteros, Juan David Restrepo

DIRECTOR: Barbet Schroeder



Actually, the boy (Anderson Ballesteros) is not so young -- nor the man (German Jaramillo) so old -- as they look, and their fast-consummated romance is just the kickoff of a complex relationship based more on gunplay than foreplay.

Such is life and sex life in Medellin, whither the disillusioned Fernando (Colombia's "foremost grammarian") has returned to die. Alexis is into death, too -- but other people's, not his own. A taxi driver refuses Fernando's request to turn down the radio? Alexis blows him away. The gun he's never without hastens many to their rewards.

This is NRA paradise: Everybody has the right to bear arms and exercises it daily. That, I suspect, is one of several reasons why eminent director Barbet Schroeder has chosen this particular time and place for his film.

The veteran Schroeder is a Sorbonne graduate and Cahiers du Cinema critic who served as assistant to -- and was heavily influenced by -- Jean-Luc Godard. "Our Lady of the Assassins" is reminiscent of his early verite semidocumentary style in "Idi Amin Dada" (1974) and "Koko, the Talking Gorilla" (1978). But Americans know him best as director of "Reversal of Fortune," the Claus von Bulow murder story for which he was nominated for an Oscar in 1990.

Melding the personal with the social is one of Schroeder's specialties. "They love me in a hateful way," Alexis tells Fernando, of his other lovers. "I know how to read, but I can't concentrate." Guns and stereos are the only things this semiliterate wild child cares about.

As portrayed by the beautiful Ballesteros, Alexis is a sweet little assassin, indeed -- but no more so than Wilmar (Juan David Restrepo), the equally attractive killer who succeeds him in Fernando's affections.

Jaramillo has much in common, physically, with Marcello Mastroianni in many a Fellini-Antonioni film. But he has even more in common, existentially, with Brando and Bertolucci: "Last Tango in Medellin" would be an appropriate alternative title here.

But, oy, the rampant (and totally unemotional) violence! Six fatal shootings before the day's half over -- so many that places around town sport signs reading "No Dumping of Corpses"! In this city of 4 million, fireworks are set off each time a coke shipment successfully gets into the United States.

Such violent surreality is a perfect -- or perfectly perverse -- complement to the serendipitous sexuality. "You can't live without sex," declares Fernando. "Look at the stupid pope, kissing floors all the time."

The pope is not just peripheral: The essence of Schroeder's critique is the Church's convenient absolution of these murderous goings-on, in and out of the Latin American drug trade.

"We should indulge in every vice to make sure we're alive," says Fernando. "Virtue is for the dead."

His (and our) deepest cynicism in this disturbing film is reserved for Wilmar's casual murder of a mugger. Divine justice?

No, Satan's -- "since God is such a failure."

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