For more than 30 years, Barbet Schroeder has shown a singular dedication to making films about critically tweaked people operating on the fringes of a normal world, itself filled with thinly disguised madness. Always threatening to make a twisto-individualist classic, Schroeder has come close before: with "General Idi Amin Dada," a 1974 documentary about the murderously charming Ugandan despot; with 1987's "Barfly," which reimagined the life of two-fisted skid-row scribe Charles Bukowski; and with the tale of bon vivant and accused killer Claus von Bulow in 1990's "Reversal of Fortune."
So "Our Lady of the Assassins," a shot-on-high-res-video adaptation of Fernando Vallejo's novel of death and love in coke-trade-wrecked Medellin, Colombia, raised hopes among the Schroeder faithful. All of which makes it even more depressing to report that, although not without its plangently grim observations, "Our Lady" is pretty inert material. Which just goes to prove that life isn't fair. Which is about all this pointless film has to say about anything.
It starts out promisingly: Amid shot-on-location panoramas of lush hillside greenery packed cheek-to-jowl with the deadly urban squalor of Medellin, we meet Fernando (Germâ?¡n Jaramillo), a middle-aged, world-weary ex-pat queer writer returning home one last time before he plans to kill himself for what turn out to be nebulously gloomy writer reasons. Fernando stops by the local boy brothel and is smitten with handsome local lad/murderous gang member Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros). Their initial sex scene is a brilliantly understated miniature of cross-purposed creepy passion. Alexis wants money, and to get off; Fernando wants God knows what, but he's certain to complain about it later.
The two repair to Fernando's rented luxury co-op and set up marginal housekeeping. For a while Schroeder limns some casually ironic culture clashes. Fernando buys Alexis a huge boom box, on which, much to the taciturn older guy's displeasure, the younger man plays lacerating death metal. The two shop in an Old World plaza where Tupac T-shirts are all the rage. And fireworks light the night sky every time the town celebrates a batch of cocaine being successfully smuggled to America.
After this relative idyll, punctuated by sudden bursts of intergang street slaughter, there is only one actual plot point. But revealing it would ruin the film for anyone predisposed to like it. Suffice to say it involves death, grieving and a failed bit of "Vertigo." Long before that, the film's two biggest liabilities become apparent: its dialogue and the continuing existence of Fernando.
Fernando addresses the world in disgusted sighs bracketed by clunky nihilisms such as "I've lived more than enough!" and "Virtue is for the dead." After a while, you realize that Fernando would be a self-involved jerk no matter where he was. Alexis, on the other hand, is fascinating. He blesses his bullets before blasting someone, disinterested in any dichotomies between Catholicism and killing but certain there's holy meaning in the act.
"Our Lady" could have been so good on so many levels. There's the largely unexplored friction between the wealthy Fernando, who chose to return to this hell, and Alexis, who has no choice, spends every minute knowing it may be his last and savors every little thing. This juxtaposition could have served as tidy satire on self-aggrandizing folks whose wealth enables them to indulge in co-opting the wretched lives of the Alexises of the world. When Fernando walks the mean streets, he sees only an articulation of his own misery.
It's especially frustrating because, as a piece of filmmaking, "Our Lady" is superb. Our lovers walk through a bustling shopping area; a pair of brightly colored motorcycles zip by; there's a spray of gunfire and a body falls. After a slight pause, there's a return to numbed normalcy. Schroeder's cutting and camera placement never negate the queasy sense that this is real and happening.
Despite the May/December aspect of their love affair, there is a relative balance of power between the two men. But it only underscores the film's fatal flaw: Alexis is far more in tune to the realities of the horror around him -- more practical, more intuitive and just plain more than his miserable, older suitor.
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