An Erotics of Casual Violence
Late in Our Lady of the Assassins, Fernando (German Jaramillo) remarks to one of his young lovers, “If you are not on television, you don’t exist.” This is a pretty commonplace assertion for anyone familiar with the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard (for one) or with the U.S. entertainment industry in general. Nonetheless, the remark gives pause, considering the film’s central concern, the day to day life of the citizens—and more specifically the young boys—of Medellin, Colombia. Outside of Colombia, and especially in the United States, the mediated “reality” of this city is reduced to biased representations of guerrilla warfare in the streets and of the policies and practices of U.S. narco-politics.
Our Lady of the Assassins at first offers itself as something of a remedy to the media’s usual focus on the brutal center of world cocaine production and distribution. And so, it shows some of the local realities (as reported on the film’s website) of the 5000 documented gangs in Medellin, or the facts that 95 percent of crime in the city goes unpunished, and there are, on average, 15 murders every day (a number that spikes to 30 on weekends and holidays). The film further demonstrates that it is often the teenage boys of Medellin who live and die to create these statistics.
In its attempt to represent the underground, unseen, or just plain ignored lives of the young boys, Our Lady of the Assassins is similar to Hector Babenco’s Pixote, about the lives of street kids in Sao Paulo, or its American counterpart, Larry Clark’s Kids. Like these other films, Our Lady promotes its “authenticity” through the casting of “real” street kids from Medellin rather than child actors (or adult actors playing at children, for that matter). The two boys with the most screentime, Anderson Ballesteros (who plays Alexis) and Juan David Restrepo (Wilmar), are residents of two of Medellin’s toughest neighborhoods, and have both been involved in gang activity and had multiple run-ins with the law.
The effects of U.S. international narcotics policy on Medellin and the lives of its younger citizens is indeed an important topic (even though the film never directly points a finger at the United States, it’s difficult to watch the film without considering how America is implicated in the drug trade, both as consumer market for cocaine and in the government’s international “war on drugs”). Yet there is also something troubling about the film’s promotion (via its production notes and “online diary” of the filming) of its “authenticity,” and the director’s celebration of his own “courage” for filming in such a difficult and dangerous city. For whom are we supposed to feel sympathy, the kids in the city or the intrepid Barbet Schroeder?
Or perhaps it is the protagonist, the writer Fernando. At the beginning of the film, he has returned to the city of his boyhood after thirty years, and visits the boy brothel run by his old pal Alfonso (Manuel Busquets). Here Fernando meets and buys Alexis for the evening, and after their assignation, invites the teenager along to visit a local church. A relationship between the two quickly develops and Alexis moves in to Fernando’s apartment. This intergenerational homosexual relationship, as well as the fact that it appears rather exploitative and largely financially motivated, might certainly be difficult for, if not objectionable to, more conservative audiences.
In order to forestall these presumed anxieties, real love and intimacy develop between Fernando and Alexis, and their story becomes a rather traditional romance. And really, the film suggests, this relationship’s benefits for Alexis, even if “merely” economic, are much better than the severely limited opportunities available to him otherwise. Furthermore, the relationship between the two is also mutually instructive. Fernando acts as the conscience of the film and opens up for Alexis the possibility of a life away from violence and exploitation, and Alexis instructs his older lover in the grim realities of Medellin. Throughout their wanderings in and around the city, Fernando reminisces about his idyllic boyhood in the former agricultural center, and rails against the now incessant noise and violence of the city, as well as the apathy and ignorance of its citizens. As Alexis slowly comes around to Fernando’s way of thinking, the two start to talk about leaving the city.
This possibility is cut short, however, when Alexis is gunned down, in an act of gang retribution. In this respect, Our Lady of the Assassins is not unlike many American ‘hood movies, where, despite the desires or motivations of the individual, there is, literally, no way out. It is in realizing that he cannot save Alexis that Fernando becomes transformed. Just as Alexis comes around to Fernando’s desire for some edenic space away from his lifelong environment, so too does Fernando come to share Alexis’s certainty that violence is inescapable. Initially disturbed by the fact that Alexis always carries a gun and horrified by the boy’s easy resort to violence, eventually Fernando becomes, rather than the boy’s savior, something of a patron saint of gangsters, insofar as the love and material security he extends come to encourage and somehow (rather inexplicably) justify Alexis’s murderous actions.
Fernando’s outrage at the contemporary realities of life in Medellin and his desire to at least find a way out for Alexis is transformed into a sort of celebration of violence, and the two come to share a real joy in the murders that become erotic spectacles preceding their sexual interactions. This trajectory is not unique to Fernando’s relationship with Alexis, but is replicated in his subsequent relationship to Wilmar, whose looks, attitude, and behavior make him strikingly similar to Alexis.
The very interchangeability of Alexis and Wilmar further drives home the futility of their desire to escape, and the film suggests that they (and Fernando) will always be doomed to make the same mistakes, to react in violence and to die on the streets. In its absolute fatalism in regard to the boys’ lives and the failure of Fernando’s optimistic desire to save them, the promise of Our Lady of the Assassins is undone. Initially a rather deft and timely exploration of the human consequences of the politics and business of drugs, by the end, the film is content merely to linger on the spectacle and eroticization of casual violence.