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Assassins
by Lucius Shepard
September 16, 2001

Someone is aiming a video camera from ground level up toward a man in a blue shirt, who appears to be having a conversation with someone off-camera. Above him looms the south tower of the World Trade Center. As we watch, what appears to be a large jet plane rendered in shadow comes into view against a cloudless sky and appears to vanish into the side of the tower. An instant later the fireball erupts and the man who is talking turns his head, almost casually, toward the explosion . . .

Reality, we realize now, resembles a bad special effect.

We have been insulated from much painful reality here in the United States, but now we know for certain sure what the rest of the world has known, that terrorism is not so beautifully lit and designed as might be depicted in some blast of digital sound and Mega-color with a nine figure budget. It is considerably less splendid, much grittier, much simpler, and the heroes do not always survive.

It was the aforementioned video sequence that to a great degree determined my choice of movie the other day. I had no real desire to see any movie, but then again, I needed to remove myself from the vicinity of my TV, from endless replays of the terrorist Super Bowl and the orgy of anchorman and -woman repetition. I decided that I wanted to see something depressing. Comedy, I believed, would fall flat, and action-adventure . . .well, I'd had a sufficiency of explosions. Perhaps, I thought, a truly depressing film, an engrossing film, would turn my attention away from the tragic circumstances of our lives and briefly dispel the pall of depression that had enveloped me. So it was that I attended a matinee showing of Barbet Schroeder's new foreign-language film, Our Lady of the Assassins. This experiment proved only partially successful, but I am here to report, for whatever reason you may choose to see it, that Assassins is a very good movie, indeed.

Adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Fernando Vallejo, Assassins is set in Medellin, Colombia, eight years after the death of Pablo Escobar, the notorious king of the Medellin cartel, a place where successful cocaine shipments to the United States are celebrated with prodigious fireworks displays. Governed by the remnant structure of Escobar's empire, the city is in a state of near-anarchy, a free-fire zone in which children are schooled from an early age in the usage of violence, thereby establishing a terrifying class of youthful street kids to whom killing has become an incidental event, merely an element of the passionless play of violence and death that comprises their milieu. Young men casually murder whoever commits the mildest of slights as they move through this landscape, leaving the bodies untended on the streets and sidewalks. And then they, too, are murdered by rival gang members or family enemies.

Into this most desolate of environments comes Fernando (German Jaramillio), a writer of middle years who has wearied of life and the corruption of the world to the extent that he has returned to die (purportedly) in the city where he once lived as a child. He walks through the streets day and night, offering comment on the ragged lives he observes, contemplating--we are given to believe--his imminent mortality. Along the way he falls in love with a handsome young gangbanger, Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros), one of the violent criminals who flow in an endless stream about him, and they become a couple oddly right for one another--this death-seeking intellectual and the death-dealing boy/man who barely seems to notice the shadow of dread mortality that hovers about him. The two men are pure contraries. Fernando is erudite, a sophisticate who enjoys opera and the classics, and delights in wordplay. Alexis, on the other hand, is a creature who lives only to satisfy his most immediate needs, and is committed to violence, shooting anyone who even appears to be at cross-purposes with him. The soundtrack of his existence is aggressive, characterless rock and roll, a music that sometimes serves him as a chaotic lullaby, provoking dreams of bigger and better guns. As the two wander the city, Alexis' path of incessant slaughter, gunshots and screams orchestrated into a harsh rhythm, becomes a kind of chorus counterpointing Fernando's bleak and often darkly humorous commentaries.

I must admit that I found the constant violence of Assassins almost soothing, its debased human-ness far more wholesome than the violence of the shadowy plane aimed at the World Trade Center, and so in this sense, the film did the job I hoped it would, immersing me in a world whose problems were more graspable and visceral than those evolving from the world of organized terrorism. I have no idea how I might have viewed the movie under ordinary circumstances--perhaps it would have numbed me, which is the effect that murder comes to have ultimately on Fernando. Yet while it did take me out of myself, all during the film I had an apprehension that I was in sitting a dark bubble beyond which a terrible brightness ruled, and I could not avoid the tendency to add my own commentaries to those of Fernando--less insightful, perhaps, but no less bleak, grounded in a gallows humor of the kind that often acts to protect me from feelings I would rather not confront, provoked in this instance by the odious preenings of various on-camera news reporters as they struck their poses in front of the gargantuan wreckage of the twin towers and the ghastly smoke of five thousand souls, arranged their faces into a telegenic gloom and served up tales of woe and treacly anecdotes, all designed, I suppose, to persuade us of the sensitivity of their affiliated network, and further having, I assume, some more pertinent manipulative intent. Could these professional mourners in their pancake make-up not for one moment stop?, I wondered. Stop their pontificating, their pitiful and irrelevant speculations, their unending statistical noise, their mini-series type ATTACK ON AMERICA graphics and quickly whipped-up theme music for the horror they seemed to be selling us like a brand of patent medicine. Could not they not cease attempting to orchestrate grief into a mourn-by-numbers craft kit, and offer some more dignified programming . . .maybe even a touch now and again of silence? Could they not allow us to find our own path through the city of grief, to provide our own commentaries, to decide for ourselves how we should feel? Did these overpaid haircuts not understand that their mawkish blather was the most godawful of distractions and irreverences, every bit as nasty and graceless in their own right as the oft-shown footage of several people on the West Bank celebrating the mass death of innocent Americans? I further recall thinking that whatever good might come from the events in New York; Arlington, and Pennsylvania (I imagine that the chief product of this disaster will be war and death) would be essentially trivial, as in the case of the lifting of Arnold Schwarzenegger's certain-to-be-horrid anti-terrorist flick, Collateral Damage, from the fall schedule, though it might be worth the price of admission simply to listen to Arnold attempt to pronounce the title. I decided that the most profound effect upon popular culture would likely be a diminution of the audience for reality television and a deluge of patriotically hued knock-off novels concerned with defending the Land of the Free from sinister plots, something that appears to be in the nature of an afterthought for this and previous Presidential administrations. If, as has been reported, the terrorist attack was causing Hollywood to rethink the content of their films, well, that would be nice, too; but if this is the case, I fear it will be only a phase, a temporary pull-back from the tried-and-true formula of the virtueless action pictures that have become the staple of every movie summer. These bursts of cynicism on my part did not last for long. The movie was powerful enough to reel me back in and involve me again in the vivid progression of Fernando and Alexis through the hellish gutterlands of Medellin.

Barbet Schroeder, who spent his youth in Colombia and has had personal experience of its terrors, brings a powerful intimacy and grittiness to the film, a work far superior to his English-language films, even the much ballyhooed Reversal of Fortune. In Assassins, he has surpassed the artistry of his early films and created a wonderfully paced and explosive picture (explosive both in terms of its action and its strangely moral heart). Filmed in digital video that is so well-suited for rendering the grimy, blood-stained thoroughfares of Medellin, you can almost smell the brimstone, and utilizing actual street kids as actors, the movie becomes a harrowing document of life on the fringes of the pre-apocalypse, and yet succeeds in conveying through its bloody imagery and the intelligence of its screenplay (also by Fernando Vallejo) a sense of beauty and humanity. Jaramillo's astonishing performance and Vallejo's script slowly reveal rather than state the true character of Fernando, and as the film pounds toward its conclusion, we realize we have been led to understand that though Fernando outwardly derides and belittles all those he observes, he is at heart a deeply romantic soul who is stricken by everything he sees. This sort of complexity is the hallmark of the film. Nothing is truly as it appears, perhaps not even death.

It is films like Our Lady of the Assassins that, dismaying and violent though they may be, remind us of what is possible of art in that frequently abused medium. It may not be a timeless movie, but it is a very wise one, one that exposes by example the complexity underlying every human event, the infinite knot of circumstance and time at the heart of every tragedy, instead of glossing over complexity with the simple colors of melodrama as do Hollywood and the network news. I wish I had seen the movie at a time when I was not emotionally corrupted, more oriented to the usual stance of a critic; but having the experience of it I did provided me with a few hours of distance from the moment I inhabit, and for that I remain grateful.

When I returned home, images of the film still playing in my head, I found that Paula Zahn, who had obviously had some touch-up work done on her blond hairdo, and wearing a pained look that put me in mind of a whiney schoolteacher complaining to her principal that she didn't understand the new textbook, was opining for the umpteenth time (upon each occasion utilizing the same constipated expression and affected delivery) that the destruction of the World Trade center, the devastation at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, together comprised the greatest man-made disaster in our history . . .as if this mattered, as if it were important that we keep track of the rankings, as if this made the death of five thousand people even more significant. She was responded to by a yea-saying cohort who soberly agreed with her pronouncement and even went so far as to suggest that it might rival in loss of life the Galveston hurricane at the turn of the 20th century, which had resulted in over six thousand deaths.

Wow.

A record.

Paula gave a shake of her head--it was just too much for her to absorb--and then, adopting a subtle variant of her beleaguered expression, she announced that they would be right back. For a time I stared blankly out the window, watching a Serbian Muslim woman who lives nearby hurry across the deserted parking lot, and then, as the theme music for ATTACK ON AMERICA sounded once again, and the signature collage of images, of collapsing towers and weeping women and firemen covered in gypsum dust, began to flicker across the screen, accompanied by sound bites of the President proclaiming his resolve toward vengeance--soul-stirring as all this was, I switched off the set and went to call my son in Brooklyn. He had been scheduled to be married in Greenwich Village on September 15th, and of course the wedding had been postponed. I needed to see how he was doing. When he answered he was standing on his balcony, looking out toward the plume of smoke rising from lower Manhattan. We engaged in a somewhat muted conversation, both of us fatigued in our own way, spiritually unfocused. I told him about the movie I had seen, expressed a number of my reactions to it, inclusive of my dissatisfaction with Ms. Zahn and her equally banal colleagues, and thereafter we discussed rescheduling my cancelled trip to New York. After awhile he told me to hold on for a second, he had to go back inside his apartment. The wind had shifted, he said, and he wanted to avoid the smell of burning metal.