Our Lady of the Assassins (La Virgen de los sicarios)

Worldly gay writer Fernando (German Jaramillo) returns home to family inheritance, but no family, in Medellin, Columbia. At a male gathering in the elegant home of an old friend, Fernando meets teenager Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros), the sole survivor of a gang that got wiped out on the city's streets. While Fernando opens his heart and pours out his bitter philosophies to the young man, Alexis opens Fernando's eyes to the unremitting violence that's taken over the places of his youth in the Columbian submission for Best Foreign Language film, "Our Lady of the Assassins."

Laura's Review: B+

Adapted from his 1994 novel by Fernando Vallejo and directed by Barbet Schoeder ("Reversal of Fortune"), "Our Lady of the Assassins" is a film of contradictions, at once poetic and tender while also brutally violent, where a machismo culture is shown matter-of-factly through the eyes of homosexual characters and gang members pay homage to the Virgin Mary before gunning people down in the streets.

Fernando rails against God as he visits old cathedrals overrun with the homeless and drug abusers. He's irritated by the music blaring from every taxi he enters and the nighttime drumming of a young neighbor across the courtyard even as he indulges heavy-metal punk loving Alexis in a stereo system (which he later hurls off his balcony). He relishes the irony of finding bodies on a hillside posted with the sign 'No dumping of corpses.'

Fernando is shocked one morning as he crosses the street and witnesses a man killed, literally at his feet, for refusing to turn over his car keys, an act Alexis dismisses as stupid. He's a little less shocked when Alexis identifies his drumming neighbor on the street and shoots him dead, decrying the senselessness of the act while attending to the practical matter of not getting caught. Soon he's so inured to the environment that he joins Alexis in making fun of the hysteria of a pregnant woman who witnesses a gang murder, yet he continues to fret about food vendors and restaurateurs who split paper napkins to save money ('a fly couldn't blow its nose in this!').

As Alexis begins to get visits from the aptly named Deadboy, tipping him off as to the nature of that day's assassins, Fernando seems to alternately accept the surreal aspect of their existence and become suicidal. In saving Fernando from himself, Alexis loses his precious revolver, and Fernando, perhaps now believing Alexis is invincible, naively professes good riddance.

While Fernando's stance on violence never seems to be as strongly rooted as he initially professes it to be, stage actor Jaramillo makes us feel his nostalgic ache for more innocent times and the pain that would make he himself pull the trigger. Non-actor Ballesteros is astoundingly good as the handsome young Alexis, whose relationship with the older man reveals the human side of a boy forced by his environment to deny one. Juan David Restrepo has less opportunity to prove his acting skills as Wilmar, the second boy Fernando loves, as his character is largely symbolic, but he does make one important line a climatic, jolting revelation.

Schroeder, who was raised in Bogota, filmed his movie guerilla-style. Warned by police that he was a strong candidate for kidnapping, Schroeder moved quickly, using high definition video to move through the streets as unobtrusively as possible. He captures both the beauty of a classical old city of plazas and cathedrals and the squalor of poverty and violence brought by the corrupt influence of powerful drug cartels. His evocation of the religious fervor that still endures is most powerfully wrought in a Bunuelian scene of a street kid sharing sweet buns with beggars as if he were dispensing communion wafers at an altar.

"Our Lady of the Assassins" takes us on a poetic, nightmarish journey into a spiralling cycle of violence and death that is all the life too many people know.

Robin's Review: B-

Writer Fernando Vallejo (German Jaramillo) comes home to the tumultuous city of Medellin, Colombia after 30 years of absence. At a gay brothel run by an old friend he meets Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros), a teenaged boy toy who Fernando immediately takes a liking to. The boy moves into the older man's sparsely furnished apartment and the two explore the vibrancy and the violence of the city made infamous by drug trafficking in "Our Lady of the Assassins."

Fernando, as close as I can figure, is a writer of some fame and fortune returning home, as he puts it, to die. (Ambiguous and enigmatic are two words I would use to describe "Our Lady of the Assassins.") He teams up, at once, with pretty, young Alexis, a tough-minded street kid who fears nothing and packs a big gun - for his own protection, he says. The pair set off into the modern/old city of Medellin, now called Medello according to Alexis, to satisfy the boy's desire for rampant consumerism. Fernando buys an expensive stereo and any other trinkets that Alexis wants and, for a while, they have a relationship that borders on being father/son-like (except for the sex part). There is a price to pay for this time of bliss and the violence that clutches the citizens of Medellin will inevitably visit the couple.

Violent confrontation on the mean streets of city is a way life, especially if you are young, male and armed with a semi-automatic pistol - one gift Alexis and other boys ask for is a mini Uzi submachine gun, just to give you some perspective. Car jacking is a popular sport in town and Fernando watches as a guy who owns a car resists and is gunned down in cold blood by the 'jacker. Alexis, himself, is involved in one shooting after another as he protects himself from endless assaults from countless enemies on the street. With sudden death a real possibility for teenaged Colombian boys, the lives of the street kids burns brighter than for kids elsewhere, making the consumer ideology a thriving one in Medellin. Live fast and die young is the motto these kids live by.

Fernando is an enigma as a man returning home to a world that is completely different from the one he left so long ago. The rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the yoke put upon the country by the drug trade, the violence perpetrated by the country's rulers and, particularly, its youth all washes over Fernando but, apart from a frequently used look of melancholy, he seems unmoved by the events. (The man is humanized when he uses, and loses, Alexis's gun to put an injured dog out of its misery. You know that this is the film's pivotal scene and will color later events dramatically.)

The autobiographical screenplay, by Fernando Vallejo, keeps the central figure, the writer, at arm's length from the events around him, even when tragedy strikes. There are lessons to be learned here but they are muted by keeping the audience from embracing the man. Jaravillo is too much of an enigma and being an observer of his observer, I never embraced the character or cared about the lessons to be learned. Anderson Ballesteros, on the other hand, is quite charismatic as the cocky, violent Alexis who thinks nothing of gunning down a cabbie who threatens Fernando. His lack of concern for life, even his own, is conveyed in a professional manner by the young actor.

Barbet Schroeder, with lensing capably handled by Rodrigo Lalinde, uses high-definition digital video to capture the garish look of Medello, a city that was made modern on a foundation of illicit drugs. The utter believability of the violence, its sudden and final nature, that grip the city is palpably felt. I don't think that Schroeder is embellishing on the violence that routinely takes place  and gives the film a realistic tenor. The tone of this part of the film put me in mind of the 1981 Brazilian film, "Pixote," an even grittier look at the street life of homeless kids in a violent urban arena.

"Our Lady of the Assassins" succeeds in taking you into the heart of Colombia and showing a violence-laden world that few will ever go to see. The main flaw is I never empathize, or even sympathize, with too enigmatic Fernando.