At the age of 60, Barbet Schroeder has made the best film of his career. Naturally, he’s elated. He has directed some superb films before — Idi Amin Dada, Barfly, Reversal of Fortune, Kiss of Death — but a project like Our Lady of the Assassins, the new film he shot in Medellin, Colombia, comes around once in a lifetime. ”One thing that I‘m proud of is that it’s very difficult to say that the movie is a cross between this and that,“ Schroeder says. ”You can talk about Death in Venice or Vertigo, but those are really distant references. In reality, it doesn‘t look like anything else. It’s a really pure prototype, and that‘s what excites me.“
Born in Tehran, raised in Bogota and Paris, Schroeder is as comfortable in Hollywood as he once was in the offices of the Cahiers du Cinema, where he began his career as a producer of films by the likes of Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard, and as an actor in art-house classics such as Celine and Julie Go Boating. Dressed in a pale silk shirt, slacks and sneakers, he answers questions in an accent that owes more to his early years in Colombia than to those he spent in France. ”I never recovered from the trip from Bogota to Paris, because it was very traumatic to leave a tropical paradise and arrive in the Napoleonic world of the lycee, of the French high school,“ he explains. ”Technically I’m Swiss — my father is Swiss-French, my mother is German — but now I‘m a resident of America, of course.“
Based on the autobiographical novel by Colombian writer Fernando Vallejo (who also wrote the script), Our Lady of the Assassins is an intoxicating mix of love story and road movie, albeit one traveled on foot and by taxi. Replete with Catholic iconography, atheist invective and scathing nihilistic humor (”Virtue is for the dead. Ever see a dead person fuck his neighbor’s wife?“), the film tells the story of a gay, middle-aged writer, also named Vallejo, who returns to Medellin after a 30-year absence. Accompanied by a 16-year-old boy, Alexis, he picks up in a brothel, Vallejo sets out to rediscover a native city that bears little resemblance to the place he grew up in. By day, baby-faced gang members gun each other down on city streets; at night, massive fireworks displays signal the arrival of cocaine shipments in the United States. Death haunts the entire city, a metropolis gone mad, particularly its trigger-happy youth. ”Can‘t you distinguish between thought and action?“ Vallejo rebukes Alexis after the boy casually assassinates a neighbor who keeps the writer awake at night with his drumming. ”What separates the two is called civilization.“
That ”rebuke“ is an unusually gentle way to treat a boy who has just killed someone in cold blood, but Assassins is an outrageous film — violent, abusive and unsentimental to the point of callousness — that will infuriate as many people as it entertains. (Colombians reportedly find the film hilarious. ”That’s the Colombian humor,“ Schroeder points out. ”You laugh about death, basically.“) Imagine a teenage gang member with Louis-Ferdinand Celine as his personal tutor and you have an idea of what the relationship at the heart of the movie is like. As Schroeder says of the boy, ”He‘s having fun because he’s dealing with an iconoclast and a rebel, and someone who has all the time in the world for him. That‘s the movie — this look that each person has for the other. It’s a symphony of looks.“
Our Lady of the Assassins marks a distinct change of style for Schroeder, whose career has been striking but uneven. Aside from Tricheurs, a relatively intricate story about compulsive gamblers, his French feature films now look painfully underwritten (something he admits), while his Hollywood films often err on the side of slickness. Not really an auteur, he needs a first-rate script in order to shine. In Assassins, Fernando Vallejo provides him with one. The result is a film — raw and political in a way that his Hollywood work could never be — in which the director is engaged both emotionally and intellectually. Nonetheless, it‘s the film’s technical side that interests Schroeder the most. Assassins was shot on High Definition video, a medium that excites him for its ability to put an entire shot in focus. This ”hyperreality“ (as he calls it) can be disconcerting at first, since background and foreground are given equal weight, one result being that Medellin is almost as much a protagonist as the actors.
”That was my idea,“ says Schroeder, ”that Medellin would be one of the characters in the story. This is a movie that‘s totally written, totally directed, totally color-controlled, and yet so many people come out of it and say, ’This is like a documentary!‘ And I know where it comes from. It comes from this impression of reality.“
It may also come from the fact that Schroeder’s feature films, whether about gamblers (Tricheurs) or car thieves (Kiss of Death), have a strong documentary feel. (His documentary about Idi Amin, paradoxically, seems more fantastic than real.) From Rohmer he learned the importance of ”anchoring things in reality,“ and in Medellin he got as much reality as he could handle. ”There were some situations that were so scary I can‘t even talk about them today, because it would get some people there into trouble,“ he says. ”There were people who didn’t want the movie to be made, and they made some serious threats to us.“
To shoot the film‘s numerous street scenes, Schroeder used a fake camera crew as a decoy and then filmed the actual scene about 50 yards away. As a foreigner in danger of kidnapping, he was given a police escort, and the crew’s van (containing $300,000 in equipment) was guarded around the clock by machine-gun-toting motorcyclists in bulletproof vests. On a scale of 1 to 10 for a potential kidnapping, the police informed Schroeder, he rated a 7.
One thing apt to strike viewers is the degree to which the violence and music and gang activity are Americanized. One street kid wears a T-shirt emblazoned with greenbacks, and heavy metal is the musical poison of choice. In his new novel, Fury, Salman Rushdie writes that ”Everyone [is] an American now, or at least Americanized: Indians, Iranians, Uzbeks, Japanese, Lilliputians, all. America [is] the world‘s playing field, its rule book, umpire and ball.“ Assassins suggests that he’s right. In a key scene, Vallejo asks another young gang member who becomes one of his lovers to make a list of the things he most wants in the world. Aside from No. 6 (an Uzi), almost every item on the list could be purchased at the Beverly Center.
”The boys all over the world want the same trademarked shirts, the same look,“ Schroeder says. ”I think that is a scene that says so much, because what [the boy] wants is a true globalization. It says also that this is not only a movie about Colombia, but that it‘s about a possible future of humanity. That’s one of the things that Vallejo says: ‘Colombia is at the vanguard, but watch out, rest of the world! This is what’s happening. This is what‘s going to come.’ So it‘s a true apocalyptic movie. This can take place in Argentina, Indonesia — tomorrow. The sicarios [assassins] are spreading like a plague. Venezuela is full of sicarios, and they’ve appeared now in Mexico. Just last year in Mexico, there were a few personalities that were killed exactly like Medellin killings.“
Neither of the two principal young amateur actors used by Schroeder are killers themselves — ”Something would freeze me at the moment of giving direction to a murderer!“ he jokes — but both are part of the killers‘ milieu. Like the characters they play, they come from the poor, lethally dangerous hillside neighborhoods shown in the movie, and have since returned to them. ”Being in the movie hasn’t really helped them,“ says Schroeder. ”Actually, it puts them in danger with the people who want to clean up society, who want to beat up homosexuals and kill them if possible, so I‘m very concerned. I fear for their lives every day.“
For the review of Our Lady of the Assassins, turn to Film Calendar.