Monday, September 10, 2007
Our Lady of the Assassins - Dimensions of Relevance and Meaning
The independently released film by Barbet Schroeder "Our Lady of the Assassins" (La Virgen de los Sicarios) in 2000 attacks the very core of identity. We are pushed to explore questions on identity not only in terms of gender and race but on the actual essence of self—who we are as individual human beings, and furthermore, charges upon the fundamental concern of identity which respectfully interrogates the purpose of our existence. “Our Lady of the Assassins” proves to be an effective medium of political socialization: the film engrosses its audience into acquiring certain political orientations amidst the backdrop of a society—which, although based on historical events in Colombia, could also easily be related to contemporary times in many other countries like ours, the Philippines. The unraveling of the story is an effective learning process which the audience can acquire the juxtaposition of socio-political beliefs and values of both the past and present generations. This was executed by presenting a plot development in which the main protagonists reveal their (varying or similar) outlook on existentialism through the everyday situations they experience together, all of which is weaved beautifully and supported by the director’s choice of varying audio-visual techniques.
A central concern of the film is the real, everyday lives of individuals as human beings. The film immediately exposes this through the use of natural lighting (no spotlights, special effects) which gives the cinematography a very crisp quality like that of an amateur recording or perhaps a television drama series (or telenovela, as popularized in Latin American countries). Furthermore, reality is emphasized by the casting of actual Colombian street kids to play the role of Alexis, Wilmar and the other boys. As the audience monitors the encounter of Fernando, a successful writer who has gone back to his hometown Medellin to die, and 16-year old ex-gang member Alexis and their eventual pedophilic, homosexual relationship, it is easily recognized that their surrounding environment is that of a city life which has diminished into individualism; the supposed sense of community is abolished as shown in scenes where the public shows extremely little concern about the youth being shot dead in broad daylight. The motto in the streets is centered on the individual and anxiety lies solely on keeping one’s self alive, irregardless of what happens to anybody else.
This mirrors the ideology of liberalism, which is a product of the breakdown of feudalism and the eventual growth of a capitalist society. Individualism is the core principle of the liberalism; the film’s terrifying scenes as a result to the individualistic nature of present-day Colombia could be a subtle attack on the ideology of the industrialized West. Liberalism’s core value is freedom, which is even given priority over equality, justice and authority (Haywood 44). Liberalists advocate “freedom under law” but in societies like Colombia where the law is highly skewed, the value of freedom to do as one pleases takes on a highly contestable facet. The attack on this Western ideology is reinforced through Fernando’s open criticism of government—he doesn’t care who the public official is, he thinks they are all the same. This is also put into context of Colombian history since their government officials revolve around a composition of a corrupt, elite group. All of this can be compared to the socialist ideology which hails community, fraternity, social equality, need, and common ownership—all of which can be exemplified in the film. The relationship of Fernando and Alexis (and later, Wilmar) put into extreme the value of fraternity or ‘brotherhood’; the gang wars would not occur if gangs were not so individualistic since the sense of competition with rival gangs pits individuals against each other which breeds resentment, conflict and hostility (Haywood, 52). Sympathy for equality also reflects the socialist belief that material benefits should be distributed on the basis of need rather than merit (Haywood, 52) as was shown when one of the street boys shares his food with beggars, satisfying their basic need of alleviating hunger.
The daily lives shown in the film touch upon the aspect of existence or purpose of everyday people, when Fernando states, “If you’re not on television, you don’t exist.” Once again this attacks the Western concept of media wherein Hollywood glamour has somewhat become a basis of one’s importance in this world. The soundtrack of the film shows contrast between the very cultural-sounding songs of the past which reflected on their Latin society, while today’s music is but a blur of loud, Western instruments to make some sort of noise—there seems to be a nostalgic plea to challenge today’s youth to be more supportive of local, non-pop culture. Additionally, since television proliferated only in the recent decades, Fernando’s view symbolizes the contrasting lives of people in the past generation and those of today. The daily television shows of violence mum the hypothetically-deafening sounds of gunshots and dismiss the supposedly-devastating loss of life: Fernando mourns when he hears a quiet rendition of an old song which reminds him of his family’s death, while Alexis, who is easily an example of many of today’s youth, sets aside the loud shots of his weapon and only trembles at the sight of death when it is of a dog.
This brings forth the queries regarding existence, which the film presents as having an ultimate outcome of absolute despair. Fernando constantly lamented on the degradation of the quality of human life in Medellin, which is ironic since it is a starch contrast on the fundamental realities of the religion that his culture is heavily rested upon—that of Christianity—which declares that "for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life" (Bible, John 3:16). The director specifically chose a society that is highly influenced by Christianity because this is the one religion that advocates salvation through faith alone, “that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16), and that “it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The film challenges the audience to rethink about our existence and the consequent concept salvation. Presented are characters who are generally regarded as highly immoral—homosexuals, murderers, pedophiles—yet Christianity states that even “all liars… their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Revelation 21:8) which therefore includes every single person—pope, saint, average teenager. By accepting that “Jesus is the only way, the truth and the life and no one goes to the Father but through Him” (John 14:6), one is given the promise to be relieved from hell—and yet Fernando found himself in a circular pattern of despair. Interestingly, Fernando did not understand the workings of the society he lived in—he did not exercise his God- given freewill to choose and accept Jesus Christ, and similarly, did not use his state-given freewill to be proactively involved in changing the dire circumstances.
Another central concern of the film is the everyday lives of individuals as citizens of a country. Fernando dismisses the problems with regards to the government, not allotting any of his precious time to criticize the obvious failure of their political system; he, however, allocates much time in criticizing his fellow citizens, particularly the poor. He condemns poverty as a self-inflicted punishment since he observes that when "you put two poor together… pretty soon they'll spawn ten more"—the poor complain about their situation yet they do not do anything to uplift their conditions. This must, conversely, be thrown back to Fernando, who does very little to transform his pitiable country; rather, he wishes to leave his native land once again and this time, even drags along with him a failed hope of their country. In today’s world where emigration in search for a better future is alarmingly prevalent, especially in less developed countries, the film presents the ideal situation of how fate seems to forbid Fernando to leave once more—the ideal situation wherein whiny, highly critical yet indolent citizens are shoved back into their home country, with the pains of reality thrust at them and the irrevocable responsibility to help in any way severely slapped into their beings.
The film portrays despair at its peak—not in times of war and other highly enthralling events but during the dullest days of our existence. The film shows life being devalued to a lower status than that of a street dog. Fernando, who in spite of being a well-traveled, highly cultured and educated older man, is plagued with the basic and elementary (to some) inquisitions of our existence in this world. The film also presents the stench of the individualistic nature in societies like ours—that in order to uplift the quality of life, we must turn our backs against selfish desires and work in unity. In essence, the films zooms in to each and every member of its audience—we are left to ponder upon the desperate realities of our lives and asked what we are doing about this, and then puts us in the perspective of an individual citizen in the plethora of people of our beloved nation.
- S. Tan
Dynamics of Social Elements in the Perpetuation of Misery - La Virgen de los Sicarios or better known as Our Lady of the Assassins is a film by Barbet Schroeder released in 2000 with cast Germán Jaramillo as Fernando, Anderson Ballesteros as Alexis and Juan David Restrepo as Wilmar. The film is set in present day Colombia in its third largest city, the city of Medellin.
In this film, we are taken into a journey alongside Fernando, a writer and a native of Medellin who has come back into this changed society after three decades of absence and his reason for coming back—to die. Upon his return to Medellin, he is introduced by his old friend to Alexis, a young boy rumored to be the lone survivor of a gang that was wiped out. Their meeting turns into a budding relationship where both find themselves “in love” and sharing each other’s company as they explore Medellin from church to church, appliance stores to appliance stores, and murders to murders. All throughout their journey, they portray the brutality, the hopelessness and the lawlessness of Medellin, the birthplace of Colombia’s most powerful cocaine cartel.
As we immerse ourselves into this movie, we immediately get the hint of the movies’ powerful and saddening theme—the misery of a hopeless society. A society where life is cheap, crime is the norm, cocaine is the lubricant, evil triumphs and the “good” is left doing nothing. These are all manifested throughout the film in subtle portrayals as well as striking and graphic scenes that really show us and slap us in the face of the utter misery of these people’s lives.
In tackling this film, especially for a political science course, we shall do away with focusing at the main characters themselves but instead we shall use them as our medium in analyzing the elements of this movie that we intend to analyze. For this brief article, we shall be dealing with the theme that we had just mentioned above—the misery of a hopeless society, wherein we shall dissect the elements (as found in the film) that perpetuate the existence of such a condition. To clearly state it; we shall look into the dynamics/interaction of the social elements that contribute to a condition of misery as related within the film Our Lady of the Assassins). In our dissection of this film, we shall frame our approach within the post-modernist model in the view of Michel Foucault (The Carceral, 1977). Whereby in such a view, provided in the core aspect of post-modernism which is the dismantling of all forms of knowledge, Foucault (1977) adds, based on his “The Carceral”, the conditions arising from the Mettray penal colony reaches a state in which “the power to punish is made natural and legitimate” and the existence of a fixed source of power and authority dematerializes resulting with each having the capacity to exact power and punish those who resist/disobey. For our dissection of this film, such provisions would elicit the kind of analysis that we aim to achieve.
Using the aforementioned paradigm, we now tackle each social element and situate them within our analysis and see how each element contribute to the existing conditions of Medellin. A key element we can derive immediately out of the film is the culture of violence. We first encounter this in the film when Fernando and Alexis come out of the church and suddenly find themselves in the midst of a gunfight between two gangs that ends up with many of them killed. As Alexis mentions, these gangs have been at each other’s throats since the death of Pablo Escobar (head of the Medellin cocaine cartel) and the sadder thing is that both gangs share the same neighborhood of Santo Domingo Savio. This culture of violence is further manifested in the movie as Fernando heads for the drugstore and sees a man gunned down by a carjacker. Fernando then realizes that such violence is not only committed by those barbarians in the streets but also by his partner Alexis as he shoots their “hippie” neighbor as they encounter him in the streets. The violence continues all throughout the movie—the taxi drivers’ death, the men in the train, the Kawasaki and Yamaha riders who tried to kill Alexis and even the riders that finally got Alexis. This violence is a result, in the post-modernist view of the absence of authority and in the state of chaos in the equal capacity of each in exacting power and punishment and is perpetuated by another factor that we shall now discuss (we shall revisit this element later).
Another element that is subtly manifested in the movie is the cocaine trade of Medellin and as mentioned, this perpetuates the violence within the city. We consider this as an element for our analysis since, as can be assessed, the cocaine trade or the cocaine itself has become the currency in Medellin—where money materializes as a result of the cocaine trade and thus making it the fuel that continues the fire of violence. As the cocaine reaches North American territory, almost the entire city celebrates with fireworks and celebrations as what Fernando and Alexis saw from the balcony. In a way, the cocaine trade is portrayed as the whole economy of the city, it is what keeps the city alive and this is further implied as Fernando and Alexis talk about Escobar and the hero nature of Escobar’s endeavors in the cocaine trade. Situating this element within our frame, in a way, the cocaine trade is an actor within this paradigm that has allocated enough power from the post-modernist chaos of and perhaps implemented ample punishment to the point that it has established a certain degree of authority within the city of Medellin. Thus we have gangs that owe their allegiances or simply work for these businesses and in many instances, they kill for the continued existence of their business thus violence is perpetuated. From these two elements, we can already see an interaction; we further expand this with our next element.
Colombia after all, is still a state ergo a government that runs it, and Medellin is not an exemption from that governments’ control. However, that control has already waned to the point that we see very little of it in the movie. In a subtly manner, the role of the government was shown in the small screen of Fernando’s TV and its waning power is further implied with Alexis shooting the TV showing the president of Colombia with the boy cursing at the president for all the lies and empty promises. The decreasing authority of the government, as explained within the post-modernist view is basically the result of the diminishing concept of a single authority, in a way; it is denied functionality though (with our assumption) it still has a little function. This function could possibly be the regulation of the cocaine trade and thus, the government is a counter balance to the previous element we discussed.
Finally, the last element we shall use for our analysis in what perpetuates the misery of Medellin is the element of reproduction, basically the never ending breeding of the people that results in the constant increase of people in and around Medellin. Another subtly presented component; where Fernando remarks about the constant breeding of the poor, when 2 breed, they spawn 10. As well as manifested with the beggar lady with her kids—where despite the harshest of living conditions, she still brought two more mouths to feed under the same harsh and cruel conditions.
With these elements from the movie, under the post-modernist frame, we now sew all these together to get a possible explanation of why such conditions persist in the movie’s setting. With the cocaine trade getting most out of the chaotic state of Medellin and being the established means of survival (by way of it providing jobs, money, etc) for the population. It is basically a major determining component in the existing condition of misery in Medellin, whereby, through the cocaine trade, aside from people being mostly “crack heads”, gangs and people in general end up killing each other for it. Thus adding and perpetuating the condition of misery (coke + violence=miseryx2) while the government, with minimal functionality still exerts a measure of regulation to the coke trade and thus, the coke trades’ power is limited to a point where it is not terminated but also does not excess in the accumulation of power thus the danger of Medellin becoming coke country (even more chaotic) is hindered while all the killings also becomes a mechanism by which to balance the misery contributing element of reproduction. An increasing population under those conditions portrayed in the film results in miserable conditions and its non-regulation would result in, as Fernando remarks, “the world would go boom!” hence, in that context, the existing culture of violence counters the reproduction aspects thus limiting misery caused by the increase of the population. So, at this point, we have the government limiting the coke while the coke perpetuates the violence that also counters the misery of overpopulation, thus, in the totality of this rather simplistic approach, the conditions of misery is neither getting worse nor getting better but instead is constant since the elements that exist within this society (from a post-modernist view) continue to interact with each other and out of all the total chaos that exist, there is instead the level at which it settles and thus becomes the existing and persisting condition—and in this case, the condition of misery, where life is worthless, death everywhere, and existence is miserable.
Foucault, Michel, The Carceral in Part 3 of Reading in Social Theory: The Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism (McGraw-Hill Inc). 1993 edited by Farganis, James
Our Lady of the Assassins reviewed By George O. Singleton accessed on September 6, 2007 from http://www.reelmoviecritic.com/20037q/id1917.htm
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