Eric D. Snider

Our Lady of the Assassins (Spanish)

If there is a worse city to live in than Medellin, Colombia, I'd prefer not to know about it. Decades of civil war, not to mention the evil of the drug trafficking that city is known for, have made it a crumbling, anarchic shell of what was once a lovely city.

The powerful Spanish-language film "Our Lady of the Assassins" could have been made by the Medellin Anti-Tourism Bureau, if there were such a thing, though its themes extend beyond the decay of that particular city into what happens in any place that allows itself to lose its moral center.

The story centers on Fernando (German Jaramillo), a successful writer who returns to Medellin after years of traveling, now cynical and mildly suicidal. He has become an atheist and rails against God for letting society fall to pieces like it has. He deplores violence, but he lives in a violent society.

He is introduced to Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros), a teen-age boy with whom he develops a sexual relationship. Alexis carries a gun around for protection and is said to have killed a few men in his day. He and Fernando are in love and move in together, despite their many obvious differences.

Much of the film is devoted to scenes of Fernando and Alexis going about business in town -- shopping, visiting, eating -- all the while discussing the state of the world. It is far more interesting than it sounds. Writer Fernando Vallejo (working from his own novel) has composed dialogue that is thought-provoking, full of philosophies that demand attention, whether one agrees with them or not. Some of what is spouted by the character Fernando strikes me as uncomfortably blasphemous, but it's compelling dialogue nonetheless.

Fernando is shocked when Alexis actually kills the noisy neighbor Fernando had complained about. "If we killed everybody we killed in our head, life would be butchery," he says. Later, Alexis states the opposite point of view: "This isn't Switzerland," he says. You can't escape the war.

Jaramillo and Ballesteros are excellent as Fernando and Alexis, separately. Together, they never quite connect. Perhaps it is the age difference, but I never really bought them as a romantic couple. Perhaps the futility of their attempted relationship is part of the point.

It is interesting, also, that they are a gay couple rather than just a mentor-student relationship or any other possible connection between an old-fashioned man and his ultra-modern counterpart. Aside from some taunts by intolerants locals, their homosexuality is not an issue in the film. This will be seen as a victory by those who believe homosexuals should be portrayed in movies as normal people who just happen to be gay, and a setback by those who believe there are enough gay characters in movies already without pushing them into the mainstream.

Despite being shot on video rather than film, director Barbet Schroeder ("Reversal of Fortune," "Single White Female") achieves some artfulness. He uses the medium to lend immediacy, but does not use it as an excuse for sloppiness or cheapness. There are no shaky, hand-held shots nor the bad lighting often associated with video. It makes the film's action -- particularly the shootings -- seem more real than it might have otherwise, driving home the movie's message about those who live by the sword also dying by it.

Grade: B+

Rated R, some harsh profanity, some nudity, some strong sexuality, a lot of gunshot violence

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