Violent Visions

Fernando taking aim at Wilmar in La virgen de los sicarios (click for higher resolution)
Sex and violence in La virgen de los sicarios
(Fernando takes aim at Wilmar)

bullet1 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 mafia.

bullet2 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 Rodrigo D. 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.

bullet2 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%.

bullet2 About

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 mine.

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)

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bullet2 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 proper).

  • 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)

  • Temporal perspectives
    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 live.
  • Desensitization as defetishization
    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.
  • Question   Filmic complicity?
    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).
    • Henri Lefebvre
      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 exist").
      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
(1m 2s)

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(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.

  • Filmic paradoxes
    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 Navigation buttons 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.