Friday, August 19, 2011

The Holy Virgin of the Assassins

Medellín, according to Fernando, was named after a pigsty in Estremadura, Spain. Alexis, who was born there, calls Medellín Medallo or Metrallo, as in metralleta (machine gun). When they meet, Fernando tells Alexis that he has come back to Medellín to die: "Life is short and ends when you least expect it". In the course of the film La Virgen de los Sicarios (2000), based on Fernando Vallejo's 1994 novel, both men learn the truth of these words.

There are films that fail to reach a large audience because they take us to places to which most of us would rather not go. Violent places, unpleasant people, or offensive ideas can drive the faint of heart or the unadventurous mind away. Fernando Vallejo, who wrote the semi-autobiographical novel on which the film is based, knows this. But so does the film's director, Barbet Schroeder.

Schroeder's place in film history is assured by his long association with Eric Rohmer. He has also occasionally directed a few quite unusual films, the best of which is the documentary, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1974), which is no less effective today thanks to The Last King of Scotland. His other films include More (1968), about heroin addicts, Maîtresse (1976), a documentary about a dominatrix, Barfly (1987), adapted from one of Charles Bukowski's typically revolting novels about the daily lives of alcoholics. He also made a few commercially successful films, like Reversal of Fortune (1990), which is excellent, Single White Female (1992), and the unrelievedly awful Kiss of Death (1995), which made one wonder which actor, Nicolas Cage or David Caruso, was the worse candidate for movie stardom. Schroeder even directed an episode of the popular television series Mad Men.

La Virgen de los Sicarios concerns Fernando, a gay man who has returned to Medellín after many years to find that what was once "a big farm with a bishop" has become a lawless city where sicarios, of whom Alexis is one, form gangs for lack of employment (Pablo Escobar is dead) and kill one another in broad daylight.

Fernando has inherited an apartment with a high terrace overlooking Medellín. When fireworks go off, he asks "What's that for? It's not a holiday."

"Means they got a shipment of coke into the U.S." Alexis explains. He asks Fernando "You said you came back to die?"

"It's true," he replies, "I don't want to live any more. I've lived more than enough. This is borrowed time." And later he says "What I had to do in life I already did. Like a gust of wind peeling lime off the walls." Fernando shows Alexis the Medellín he remembers, or what's left of it. They find a bar that's still standing, and there is a beautiful scene in which Fernando finds a song on the jukebox that he remembers and sits down. Overcome with memories, he lays his head on the table.

"You're crying," Alexis says. "What happened?"

"Time caught up with me," Fernando says. "In this same bar, when I was a kid, on a day like this, I heard this record. Then my parents, my brothers and sisters and grandparents were alive. They're all dead. How can I not cry?"

Like Malle's Le Feu Follet, we follow a man planning to kill himself, although the agent of Fernando's death (by his own hand) is only implied. But unlike Alain in Malle's film, Fernando's despair is full of contempt - for everything. God: "I told that old creep to fuck off a long time ago." Sex: "You can't live without sex. People go crazy without sex. Look how nutty the Pope's become. Spouting crap everywhere and kissing floors. Saying that homosexuals, and all that, is a sin. That's a sin? Having kids is a sin. There's no space left, the planet'll explode!" The Poor: "Put two wretches together in 15 minutes they'll breed. 10 more poor wretches. I hate poverty. The way to get rid of it is to get rid of those who spread it." Simón Bolívar: (looking at his statue) "Coward. The only time you had to fight, you fled! And jumped off a balcony three feet off the ground! The pigeons will shit on you. Hide under yours wife's skirts! Glory is a statue that gets shit on by birds." Fútbol: "When people sit on their asses watching 22 childish adults kicking a ball, we're screwed." Whistling: "Man has no business stealing the sacred language of birds!" (So much for Messiaen.)

In one scene, Schroeder indulges in what must be one of the worst clichés about gays by having Fernando introduce Alexis to the voice of Maria Callas: "That's the finest aria ever written [Rossini's "Una Voce Poco Fa" from The Barber of Seville]. Her incredible voice is piercing my heart." Callas was also used in the pushy Jonathan Demme movie, Philadelphia, when Tom Hanks's character insinuates that one had to be gay to fully enjoy Callas. (There may be some truth in this. I always thought she was overrated.)

Though he has given up hope for humanity, Fernando is nonetheless shocked at the mayhem he witnesses: a man shot down in front of him, Alexis killing a taxi driver and three others on a train. "All these killings are encouraging my own self-destructive urges", Fernando tells Alexis. "Think twice before you shoot. Count to ten. If we killed everyone we kill in our heads, life would be butchery! Can't you distinguish between thought and action? What separates the two is called 'civilization'."

The killings pile up, almost literally, until they become meaningless. Schroeder's film, shot on extremely immediate digital video, is not very cinematic, despite all the blazing guns and falling bodies. If the film fails it's because of how impossible it quickly becomes to care for people who shoot one another and die like dogs. I don't have the advantage of Fernando's sexual attraction to Alexis and the other sicarios. When they die, and Fernando goes home and closes the curtains for perhaps the last time, it wasn't so much sadness I felt as relief. At least the end of the film, for me at least, was an end to the mindless destruction.

Schroeder's film is nonetheless revelatory of the soft underbelly of a macho Latin American culture. It effectively exposes the impotence of a society in which murder is so commonplace that signs have to be posted to prohibit the dumping of bodies. The author of the novel revoked his Colombian citizenship and now calls Mexico his home. I wonder if Vallejo now sees the Mexican drug war, in which more than 40,000 people have died since 2006, as a familiar nightmare.

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