There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Our Lady of the Assassins’ Fernando and Alexis don’t have much in common, even for an odd couple. Fernando is in his 50s, and Alexis is a teenager. Fernando has lived abroad for many years, but Alexis has never left his native city of Medellín, Colombia. Fernando loves opera; Alexis prefers speed metal. Fernando has inherited enough money to live comfortably, but Alexis has never had anything. And Fernando is a writer, Alexis a killer.
The two meet at an all-male soiree, where Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros) is presented as a sort of party favor to Fernando (Germán Jaramillo). After 30 years abroad, the older man grandly says that he’s returned home to die, but his life expectancy is longer than Alexis’. A sometime hit man in a cocaine-struck city further destabilized by the death of drug lord Pablo Escobar, Alexis has been “sentenced” by the family of one of his victims. He’s not about to keep a low profile, however. As the new couple wanders the city, the younger man is quite willing to call attention to himself, sometimes homicidally. His killings are part pointless horror, part black-comic commentarya combination that mirrors the movie’s tone.
When Alexis first undresses for Fernando, the boy reveals talismans not of sex but of death: a gun stuffed in his pants and a shotgun scar. Fernando doesn’t exactly encourage Alexis’ violent proclivities”Can’t you distinguish between thought and action?” the writer asks after one of his young companion’s murderous eruptionsbut neither does he attempt to control them. After all, most of the killings are gifts of a sort: Alexis takes it on himself to kill loud neighbors and insolent cabdrivers about whom his new lover has griped. The couple atones with frequent trips to Medellín’s ornate Catholic churches, where even professed atheist Fernando takes some comfort in the familiar rites.
There is an element of wicked parody to the writer’s interest in ritual: When Fernando buys a box of pastries for hungry street kids, he makes them kneel to receive them in a burlesque of communion. But Fernando’s Catholicism is no more debased than that of the city’s killers, who pray to María Auxiliadorathe patroness for whom the movie is namedand believe in the special deadliness of “blessed bullets.” In fact, there is a blessed bullet with Alexis’ name on it, and after the killer is himself killed, Fernando learns another lesson in the disposability of boys from Medellín’s hillside slums. He quickly replaces Alexis with the physically and psychically similar Wilmar (Juan David Restrepo), which turns out to be an ironic choice.
As the tale of a middle-aged writer’s passion for a young man, Our Lady of the Assassins sometimes suggests Death in Venice. Both were adapted from novels, although Fernando Vallejo’s bookoriginally published in 1994 and recently translatedis apparently more autobiographical; the central character shares the writer’s name, hometown, and obsessions. Yet director Barbet Schroeder is not interested in anything that’s pensive, mannered, or detached. With the assistance of Vallejo, who wrote the script, Schroeder has plucked Fernando’s story from interior monologues and taken it to the street, using a handheld camera andsave for Jaramillo, a theater actor and producernonprofessional performers. The result recalls several brutal movies about Brazil’s wasted youth, notably Pixote, but also films that collapse the barrier between fiction and documentary, especially Volker Schlöndorff’s Circle of Deceit, which was shot amid Lebanon’s civil war.
Like Schlöndorff’s film, Our Lady of the Assassins grounds an account of one man’s spiritual crisis with combat-photography views of a chaotic city. The globe-trotting Schroeder, who has made films in both France and Hollywood, spent part of his childhood in Colombia; he clearly wanted to capture the actual Medellín, not some generic equivalent that might be found in a more placid Latin American country. (Threatened with kidnapping during production, the director traveled in armored cars and shot quickly with high-definition video.) “This isn’t Switzerland,” barks Fernando to a grieving woman, and Schroeder’s footage proves it.
In a sense, Fernando is an assassin, too. He is lethally contemptuous of Latin America’s icons, both religious and political; at one point, he lambastes a statue of Simón Bolívar, Colombia’s 19th-century liberator. Although Fernando can distinguish between thought and action, the camera sometimes enters his dreams, where such distinctions melt into jittery, double-exposure sequences. Putting his hallucinations into a film that stresses street-level verisimilitude might seem an odd strategy, but Schroeder’s Medellín is a nightmare for both the sleeping and the wakefuland the living and the dead. Simultaneously feverish and dispassionate, Our Lady of the Assassins proposes that the only rational response to living in hell is a powerful sense of the absurd.
A considerably more didactic view of Third World disarray, Life and Debt contemplates the handiwork of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and allied institutions in one little country: Jamaica. As writer-director Stephanie Black is aware, many visitors to the island consider it a paradise. Away from the resort hotels, however, Jamaica is a land whose farms and industries are collapsing under the strain of international debt: Interest payments alone consume 52 percent of the government’s budget.
In many countries with limited economic infrastructures, the quasi-governmental moneylenders who represent the United States, Europe, and Japan encourage only those businesses that are most useful to the industrialized world. That usually means resource extractionoil, minerals, timberor tourism. While North American and European travelers flock to Jamaica’s resorts, the country’s chicken producers, dairy farmers, and vegetable growers find themselves competing with inexpensiveand sometimes substandardAmerican products. So-called globalization means not only that Tommy Hilfiger and Brooks Brothers can export $30-a-week garment-assembling jobs to Jamaica’s no-tariff “free zones” but also that Jamaicans end up buying frozen chicken that’s too old for the American market. Ironically, Jamaica is now considered a high-cost country: Clothing manufacturers are leaving the island for places where workers make even less, and only a pact with European nationswhich the United States is trying to abolishallows Jamaican bananas to compete with those grown at Chiquita’s Latin American plantations, where workers are little more than slaves.
Using interviews filmed at separate times, the documentary skillfully assembles a debate between Michael Manley, the leftist former prime minister of Jamaica who was brought low by American political and economic pressure, and smug IMF Deputy Director Stanley Fischer. The latter argues that Jamaicans must play whatever role the global economy assigns them. The film counters that education, medical care, and sewage-treatment plantsJamaica has nonecan’t be financed by a country that in global terms exists principally to send debt-service checks and that international “aid” has turned Jamaica into a nation that can’t even feed itself. (The latter is something that American, French, and Japanese economic policymakers would never allow to happen to their own countries, where subsidies, tariffs, and price supports bolster uncompetitive farmers.)
There is tourism, of course, and Life and Debt shows lots of smiling Jamaicans working very hard to please the visitors who come to the island to enjoy sunbathing, drinking games, and meals whose ingredients have mostly been imported from Miami. The narrationadapted by Jamaica Kincaid from her book A Small Placepatronizingly addresses these travelers, whose vulgarity is supposed to be self-evident. Later, she explains that Jamaica was first populated by “noble Africans” enslaved by “human rubbish from Europe.” The rest of the film, however, is considerably more subtle, placing the conflict in terms of contemporary economic exploitation rather than historic racial resentment. Black can’t resist appealing to cultural-tourism sensibilities by leavening her indictment with lots of reggae, but Life and Debt goes beyond the lilting music and tropical sunsets to a withering critique of globalization’s cult of “efficiency.” CP