The most important thing to remember while watching La Virgen de los Sicarios(Our Lady of the Assassins) is that this is not a documentary. Because Colombia usually is represented in international cinema as the den of drug lords, it is easy to take offense at this portrayal as yet another devastating stereotype of the troubled Andean nation. Indeed a controversy over negative representation broke out even before the film was wrapped, with one Colombian journalist calling for a prohibition of the production. Based on the novella of the same name by displaced countryman Fernando Vallejo, La Virgen de Los Sicarios has less in common with fellow Medellín-native Victor Gaviria's real-life portraits in Rodrígo D. No Futuro and The Rose Seller than it does Dante's Inferno or Camus's The Stranger. Rather than attempt to understand the social cause of senseless violence, La Virgen de los Sicarios essays a philosophy on the tenuous meaning of life.
Director Barbet Schroeder is a Hollywood veteran, with solid mainstream films such as Barfly and Reversal of Fortune to his credit. But the Tehran-born, Paris-educated filmmaker is not a total outsider, having spent much of his childhood in Medellín. After searching unsuccessfully for a project to film in Colombia (including the life of Medellín drug king Pablo Escobar, which was abandoned when the studio refused his condition that the film be made in Spanish), Schroeder seized upon Vallejo's novella. It explores the thoughts of a successful writer, also named Fernando (Germán Jaramillo), who returns to his hometown after 30 years abroad, he says, "to die." Instead he falls in love with charming teenage assassin/male prostitute Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros).
When the pair wander about the churches and tango bars of the city, Alexis blows away anyone rude enough to offend his benefactor as quickly and piteously as Fernando reels off diabolically funny lines about the benefits of exterminating the poor. With deadly consequences, the love-besotted assassin is forever taking the writer's ironic barbs literally; a warning perhaps to those who condemn the film as a literal depiction of Medellín. The difference between thought and action, Fernando argues at one point, when Alexis offers to off a neighborhood nuisance, is "civilization."
Just how to know the difference between reality and representation is not always clear, however. Shot using high-definition video cameras that capture an extreme depth of field, the picture onscreen is hyperreal. From the opening sequence where we first see Fernando's image in plate glass as he walks down the sidewalk, to the recurring shots of the apartment window at night that reveal simultaneously the lighted hills and the writer's face, the city is always a reflection of the character. Likewise the Medellín of La Virgen de los Sicarios is a refraction of the prodigal son's yearning for the past -- a past that happens to have been cordoned off in this instance by the most extreme violence. Perhaps Schroeder and his crew should have been more diligent in ensuring that their reflection more faithfully reproduce the exact number of dead felled on Medellín's streets (surely what we see here is an exaggeration). It's not clear that doing so would do much to improve Colombia's image in the eyes of the world or bring a halt to the violence -- or that it would improve an already thought-provoking movie.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.