[El Rincón Español]
Killers in Love
By Mark McHarry, in: The Guide, November 2001
Boy and toy
Our Lady of the Assassins, a new film based on a novel by one of Colombia's leading authors, opens a window onto a torrid, tragic world of passion and violence.
Violence from the drug trade and a civil war has kept Colombia in the headlines. We'll likely see more stories as the US escalates military assistance for Plan Colombia, a billion-dollar initiative to stanch the drug flow. In Colombia the drug war has met with little success-- other than encouraging the proliferation of violent criminal cartels. The city of Medellín is ground-zero for the cocaine merchants. Medellín is also the birthplace of a new breed of criminal, sicarios, teenage contract killers. Thought to be the brainchild of drug lord Pablo Escobar, the sicarios are recruited from the slums to settle scores between rivals. As gang factions shift, many are left to fend for themselves, joining paramilitary groups or committing street assaults. Medellín has become among the most violent cities in the world.
A new and highly-acclaimed movie from Barbet Schroeder, Our Lady of Assassins, is set there. It tells the story a man and a 16-year-old sicario who fall in love. Leading Colombian author Fernando Vallejo wrote the screenplay and the novel of the same name (in Spanish, La Virgen de los Sicarios) from which it was adapted.
This was Vallejo's first book published in the US and Europe. In Latin America he has been admired as an intellectual cum literary bad boy for some time.
Vallejo has authored a number of respected works, including a book on grammar and the definitive biography of Porfirio Barba-Jacob, a bohemian homosexual who penned Whitmanesque odes to adolescents and marijuana in the early 1900s.
Vallejo has written and directed movies in Mexico. But his notoriety derives from an autobiographical saga wherein he depicts his precocious adolescence spent in the dives of Medellín and Bogotá, immersed in drugs and homosex: "Ruin yourself, get wasted, fuck up, that's the only way to get the words off your venomous tongue. The greater your disgrace the happier you'll be.... I get high on your civic indignation. 'Faggots!' Medellín shouts to us from a corner when it sees us go by...." (El Fuego Secreto, 1987)
Some say El Fuego Secreto-- which translates "The Secret Fire" was the soil in which La Virgen de los Sicarios grew. The autobiography won high praise, as did La Virgen when it appeared in 1994.
One review in the Latin American press called La Virgen "a delirious canto to love and hell." Reading it is indeed a sublime experience. Vallejo is an absolute master of language and culture. Another termed it "social vivisection," and it is that, too.
Vallejo's language scythes through the conservative Catholic status quo. His prose is hard-hitting, exquisite, alive in its turns of phrase, at times lyrical, at times brutal. Vallejo, in the guise of Fernando-- a middle-aged writer coming home, he says, "to die"-- pulls us in on a nihilistic tour of what had been a pretty provincial city, now in a moral free-fall. His companion in this anti-Baedeker is the love of his life, Alexis, a sicario.
In Barbet Schroeder's movie of the same name, Fernando's mordant comments about a crime-ridden city, its hateful people and its rapacious politicians, are funny and provocative. But in the book Fernando engages us directly, much more powerfully.
When, early on, the boy tells him he's never thought about going to bed with a girl, Fernando reflects, "So then that's what it was behind those green eyes, a purity uncontaminated by women. The absolute truth, fuck what you think, that's what sustains me. That's what I fell in love with. His truth."
In the book Fernando's observations are more deeply felt, often stunning. We see clearly the chaos could apply to any place that becomes as corrupt; perhaps, one day, to us all.
The book paints a far bleaker picture than the movie and its contradictions are more acute. Alexis can't bring himself to shoot a fatally injured dog, yet his devotion to Fernando is such he uses his Beretta at the slightest provocation to his lover. Fernando's anguish about the degeneration of his country is palpable, the more so because he sees in his exterminating angel the embodiment of and solution to its problems. It's a terrible irony made worse as their love awakens in him a glimmer of hope. We root for them even as we see Fernando increasingly involved in Alexis's murders, determined at all costs to protect the sole reason he has to live.
Schroeder's movie-- for which Vallejo wrote the script-- sharpens the characters' humanity. It turns Fernando's intellectual soliloquy into an emotional one. The movie brings Alexis to life, while in the book we see him only through Fernando's eyes. The city also becomes a character, depicted as a colorful -- if deadly -- place, alive to the rhythms of music familiar to the director from his childhood in Bogotá. The choices -- vallenatos and even a pasodoble -- are inspired. Schroeder, Vallejo, and the cast did a remarkable job adapting the book to the screen.
In both works Vallejo's dialogue for the boys is dead-on. This should be no surprise, since Alexis and probably some of the others were not fictional at all. In reading what he and Schroeder told the press about the movie and book, some interesting facts emerge.
Sicarios who love men are real, as is their violence. Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian author, has noted sicarios are as legendary in Colombian culture as cowboys in Wyoming and samurai in Japan. In his book, Vallejo comments caustically on those who would study them. Schroeder told interviewers he met gay-identified sicarios during the shoot, while Vallejo said simply, "people are much more ambiguous than one might think and their sexual inclinations much more extensive than they say."
Vallejo was more forthcoming to other journalists, rhapsodizing to one about Medellín's boy brothels and declaring to another, "The brightest moments of my existence have been in bed with boys. Man is a biological machine programmed to ejaculate and everything else is hypocrisy, pretext, crap." He's also excoriated the Pope's opposition to birth control, saying that the many unwanted kids of the Medellín slums "grow up to be sicarios and I will minister to their pain, not him."
Schroeder said the owner of the apartment in which Fernando and Alexis met is a real person, and this man not only found the boy who plays Alexis, but introduced the real Alexis to the real Fernando. He described Vallejo as "the same as the character in the movie, dressed the same, doing the same things, exactly the same person." At one point, in a hallucinatory sequence, the movie shows us Vallejo's full name on a crypt, making it clear the protagonist and the author are one.
If so, does Fernando-the-author share Fernando-the-character's complicity in his lover's murders? Many journalists asked him just how much of his novel was autobiographical. To most he said, "All the dead in it I killed in my heart," but to one he replied, "If I answer your question, I'll go to jail."
Don't look for this at the website of Paramount, which, is distributing the movie in the US. In keeping with North American sensibilities, Paramount censors the actors' ages and even changes the word "boys" to "actors" when it translates the same material on the director's more informative site (see below).
If you can, read Our Lady of the Assassins before you see the movie. If not, read it after. It is a beautiful, disturbing masterpiece.
Author Profile: Mark McHarry
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