Directed by Barbet Schroeder

Written by Fernando Vallejo, based on his novel

With German Jaramillo, Anderson Ballesteros and Juan David Restrepo

Distributed by Paramount Classics


OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS falls somewhere between documentary and fantasy, and while it's undoubtedly an accurate depiction of life in Medellin, Colombia, something about it falls flat as fiction. Its main theme seems to be the   desensitization provoked by  a city where life is absurdly cheap, but it filters this story through the eyes of  two expatriates with strong ties to Colombia,  writer Fernando Vallejo - who now lives in Mexico - and director Barbet Schroeder. Vallejo's source novel is bluntly autobiographical, with a protagonist named after himself. Born in Iran and based in France and the U.S. for his career as a filmmaker, Schroeder lived in Colombia for 4 years as a child and witnessed a beheading there during a riot in 1948. The only other Colombian film I've seen, Victor Gaviria's NO FUTURE - RODRIGO D., paints much the same picture of life in the country, even informing us in the closing credits that many of its cast members died before the film could be released. Both of the teenage actors in OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS have criminal backgrounds and  don't expect to see age 21, and Schroeder's on-line production diary is as harrowing as the film. Nevertheless, it seems a victim of its  high concept: DEATH IN VENICE meets MENACE II SOCIETY, a synthesis that never quite gels.

Fernando (Jaramillo) is a gay, middle-aged writer who's returned to Medellin after a period in exile, expecting to die. Calling himself Colombia's last "grammarian," he keeps up a good line of morbid, nihilistic patter, but he falls in love with teen thug Alexis (Ballesteros). As Fernando showers him with gifts, Alexis moves in with him. However, he doesn't simply act like a hustler: Alexis reciprocates his affection with little angst about their age difference or homosexuality. Fernando initially maintains some semblance of distance, but he quickly becomes a numb, detached observer, as Alexis becomes his guide to a world of casual violence. (The boy blows away a drummer who lives next door when Fernando complains about the noise.) In between murders, Fernando and Alexis walk around  the city, often heading into cathedrals even though the writer is a professed atheist . However, the relationship is doomed by Alexis' penchant for violence.

For all its flaws as a narrative, OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS is one of the best-looking DV films  I've seen.  The difficult circumstances of shooting dictated an element of guerilla filmmaking, especially in street scenes, but as if to compensate, Schroeder also uses sweeping tracking shots, stylized lighting and deep focus. No one's going to mistake OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS for THE CELEBRATION or THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Like Brad Anderson's SESSION 9 and Gary Burns' forthcoming waydowntown, it takes full advantage of the strange color effects video often produces. They  introduce an element of the surreal, tied to the contrast between  Medellin's violence and its overwhelming Catholic presence.

However, it's as if Takeshi Kitano's ultra-gory BROTHER was presented as a realistic depiction of life in L.A, all the while while presided over by a writer like Dennis Cooper reciting his violent fantasies. The violence in OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS is relatively realistic. Schroeder doesn't gloss over its brutality, even as  Alexis blows people away as though murder were the equivalent of yelling "Fuck you!" However, it also seems like a projection  of Fernando's inner life. He flirts with death in his imagination and rhetoric loudly, while  initially blind to its presence around  him. Maybe the real tragedy of this story is that the real world lives up to  his dreams' pretentious morbidity.

Paramount Classics' trailer for OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS bills it as one of the year's most controversial films. That may have been the case in Colombia, but in the U.S., the fact that its hero is a borderline pedophile is more likely to upset spectators than the violence. Still, while the film never overtly criticizes Fernando's pursuit of teenage boys, they wind up paying the price for his fascination with death. Both generations are implicated in the cycle of  mortality.  Neither  is innocent: if Fernando's love puts Alexis in danger, Alexis corrupts him in turn. After the complacent hackwork of most of Schroeder's Hollywood films, it's encouraging to see him return to asking difficult territory, even if the results don't pay off: the tough questions it raises about violence are a far cry from the action clichés of Schroeder's last film, DESPERATE MEASURES.