Director tries, fails to strike a nerve with film

October 05, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The character at the center of Our Lady of the Assassins proclaims that he has come to his homeland to die, and then does nothing but make despairing or ironic comments, suffer religious nightmares, and sleep with a couple of cold killers. It doesn't take long for you to wish that he'd already expired.

This wan fellow, played by stage actor German Jaramillo, is a native Colombian literary figure. The home he returns to is Medellin; the director, Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune), says he was "raised" in Colombia. Because it is in part an expose of the gory chaos of present-day Colombia, Our Lady of the Assassins (in Spanish with English subtitles) has taken on a stature in the international film world that has nothing to do with its scant dramatic impact. Shot on high-definition video, the movie is less a vision of hell than a superficial walking tour.

Shortly after his arrival, Jaramillo takes in a teen-age pistolero, who escorts him through the mean streets of Medellin. All the streets are mean: If there isn't a random shooting or a hit going on, there's apt to be a car-jacking. Whenever a big drug shipment arrives in the United States, the kingpins send up fireworks. Way down in the gutter, beggars kneel for pastries as if they were communion wafers.

The lover is a product of this culture: a gangbanger who roams through the city strapped, ready for reprisals and willing to blow away anyone who threatens or insults him or his new man. He isn't evil but amoral and thus, to the writer, almost innocent.

This picture of a population inured to explosive bloodletting is persuasive; what the movie lacks is a character compelling and deep enough to take us beneath the surface. Mostly, the writer runs on about the deterioration of his birthplace and the absence or irrelevance of his Roman Catholic God. The most anti of antiheroes, he finds his homicidal lover's string of abrupt and offhand murders equally upsetting and bracing. He does try to steady the boy - he even succeeds in preventing him from killing a rude waitress. But the couple reach a peak of synchronicity when, at different times and in different ways, they ridicule a pregnant woman who is rendered hysterical by a showdown. In that sequence, Our Lady of the Assassins effectively addresses the cold limits of absurdism. Elsewhere, the picture wallows in it.

Weeks or maybe months after Jaramillo's first lover leaves the scene (to say how would rob the movie of its modicum of tension), a similar lover enters the picture. The two young gunmen prove so similar - and so excruciatingly linked - that Our Lady of the Assassins starts to resemble a cheesy version of Vertigo, in which God or Satan takes the place of a plotting husband.

Perhaps Schroeder hoped that the use of high-definition video would impart a nervy documentary texture. Instead, the reverse happens. The blend of chic histrionics and ultra-bright daylight imagery make much of the movie resemble a network soap opera with an on-location interlude. It looks as cheap as life is held in Medellin.

Our Lady of the Assassins

Starring German Jaramillo

Directed by Barbet Schroeder

Rated R

Released by Paramount Classics

Running time 100 minutes

Sun score **

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