Sex and violence in La virgen de los
(Fernando takes aim at Wilmar)
Colombia: La virgen de los sicarios
This film, La virgen de los sicarios
["Our Lady of the Assassins"] was made in 1999 by the Franco-Colombian film-maker
Barbet Schroeder, based on the novel of the same title by the Colombian author
Fernando Vallejo, who also wrote the film script. It concerns the extreme
culture of violence which took over Medellín, Colombia's second city, in the
1990s and is the most recent of a series of films using some non-professional
actors which deal with the "invisible" lives of the marginal, unemployed youths
who are caught up in the crime and tit-for-tat assassinations of the drugs
Other Colombian films
La virgen de los sicarios is not the
best of the Colombian films on this subject — that honour goes to the extraordinary
filmic studies of the poet and film director Víctor Gaviria, Rodrigo D.
no futuro (1988) and La vendedora de rosas (1998), which I have written about
elsewhere (see papers on
and La vendedora). It shares with
Rodrigo D. and La vendedora the use of natural actors, although
in the former films all of the actors are non-professionals; in La
virgen, there is a mixture of professionals and non-professionals. I
have chosen this film because it is the latest, and also because it is the
most explicitly violent.
Violence & dehumanization
In fact, it would be correct to say that
La virgen de los sicarios is a study in the dehumanizing effects
of violence. The film confronts the viewers directly with the banalization
of violence through repetition, the moral desensitization that it causes.
Barbet Schroeder has stated that he was initially unsure whether the novel
could be adapted to cinema because of the high number of violent deaths
— some 18 in all — which it contains. The film contains fewer than that,
but there are plenty of gratuitous murders committed by the young boys.
- Barbet Schroeder
As Schroeder himself explains:
"I wanted the violence to become ... I
wanted the viewers to feel, like the characters, a kind of progressive
anaesthesia towards violence, like anyone who wants to continue living
in Medellín" (DVD Extra: 12:40), a city which has been wracked by drugs-related
violence and where the rate of impunity for violent crime is some 98%.
Although it's a bit of a cop-out from an
academic perspective, I thought I'd show you the trailer for this film,
because it compiles many more snippets of sequences from the film than
I would have been able to provide myself. Once again the subtitling is
The film concerns an ageing Colombian writer,
who has the same name as the author of the novel, Fernando Vallejo, returning
to Medellín (or Metrallo, as it is nicknamed, playing on the word metralleta)
after many years living abroad. He says he has come home to "die", and
has a world-weary, heavily cynical attitude to life. There, he falls in
love with a young assassin he meets in a gay brothel, and is dragged,
along with us, into the moral chaos of Medellín.
Clip 4: Trailer
for La virgen de los sicarios
(subtitled) (1m 41s)
|Windows Media Format
Violence in the field of vision
Well, as you can see, the film uses a
number of the standard conventions of narrative cinema for the representation
of violence, and is less experimental either than Pizza, birra, faso
or than its two Colombian precursors (although I should say that the
trailer, as a kind of meta-genre designed to sell the film, imposes
its own stereotypes which are not necessarily read as such in the film
- No future
One of the boys in the film proclaims
"Nacimos para morir" — we were born to die. In a similar fashion to
Alonso Salazar's harrowing documentary book on the violent street
gangs of Medellín, called Nacimos pa' semilla (in English translation,
Born to Die in Medellín (Salazar 1990)), this statement introduces
a stark lack of temporal dimension in the lives of these street youths.
As Salazar puts it:
The hired killers have absorbed
the ephemeral sense of time that is typical of our day and age.
Life is the instant. Neither past nor future exist. […] The contract
killers take the consumer society to its extremes: they turn life
[…] into a commodity to deal in, into a disposable object. (120)
This is a theme very much underlined
by the film, in which the temporal depth of the older Fernando,
with his nostalgia for the Medellín of his childhood which now only
exists in forgotten backwaters of the city, is in constant tension
with the ephemerality in which Alexis and his street companions
But, returning to the model I outlined
at the beginning, despite the cheapness of life, the film clearly
works starkly against any fetishization of violence, principally
through the spectator's growing discomfort, as body after body
accumulates through the film, each one eliciting less and less
sympathy, and a cynical, unbearably stark response from Fernando.
What is clever about the film is that the discomfort caused in
the spectator is a kind of moral panic at the desensitization
which the film itself is causing us. In this sense, the film operates
desensitization as defetishization, an emptying out of our stock
moral responses towards violence.
The representational paradoxes which
this raises are, I now wish to argue, inherent within the televisual
representation of violence (and I am including cinema within the
realm of the televisual from a philosophical perspective).
For, as the French urban theorist
Henri Lefebvre makes clear in his book The Production of
Space (Lefebvre 1991 (1974): 97), we live in an age of image
and media capitalism, within a globalized spatial regime in
which your power or powerlessness is determined by your visibility
or invisibility within the media and the representational processes
of capitalism. Or as Fernando puts it in La virgen de los
sicarios, "El que no sale en televisión no existe"
(1:15) ("if you don't appear on television, you don't
Cinema cannot innocently and detachedly represent
the violent segmentation and parcellization of the social when
it is itself constituted within, and constitutive of (as popular
representational practice), the power geometry of such "visual"
regimes of modernity and postmodernity.
- Televisual bodies
A single example will have to suffice.
The young assassin, Alexis, is obsessed with the purchasing of
commodities, particularly what in Colombia are called electrodomésticos,
TVs, hi-fis, etc. The aesthete Fernando humours him, even though
he hates pop music and media noise, and several times has to ask
Alexis to turn off the blaring TV and hi-fi which he has brought
into Fernando's apartment, something which Alexis has difficulty
in understanding. Here we see a sequence which literalizes dramatically
the relationship between the televisual regimes of media capitalism,
the loss of temporal depth in the culture of consumerism, and
the reduction of human bodies to commodoties to be disposed of
for a trifle. Note the subject of the President's speech on
the television set in this clip.
Clip 5: La
virgen de los sicarios
|Windows Media Format
(Former) President César
Gaviria's speech was about the privatization of public
utilities, a policy initiative which, he says, "will
benefit all Colombian". This is the global rhetoric of
neo-liberalism which has so spectacularly failed in many
countries in the region. In directly linking the
globally driven privatization of common wealth, as well
as commodity fetishism and mediatization, to the violent
buying and selling of lives on the streets of Medellín,
the film is elaborating a radical critique of the
systemic production of violence.
It is also, I think, significant that
the shooting of a screen here should inaugurate the series
of increasingly arbitrary shootings which Alexis will
undertake in his misplaced desire to please Fernando
as the film progresses. Whether through its defetishizing and radical
displacement of our stock emotional responses to violence through
problematic overexposure, or through its exploration of
commodification, the film raises latently a series of
representational paradoxes which are rendered fully explicit in the Mexican film to which I now
wish to turn.