The semi-autobiographical feature debut of Colombian director and co-scenarist Laura Mora Ortega, ‘Killing Jesus’ is dedicated to Mora Ortega’s father, a human rights lawyer who was killed in front of her. Unlike the film, Mora Ortega did not actually meet the killer, but saw him in dream and became preoccupied with the question of what she would have done had she found him.
According to Mora Ortega: “A year and a half after my dad was killed, I moved to Australia, and was very frustrated because I wasn’t able to write. I had always been good at it, but when Dad was killed I stopped, and it was hard because I felt I owned him a homage with written words, but I just couldn’t do it. Eventually, I had this dream that I was at this lookout point and a guy sat next to me and started talking. He asked how old I was then suddenly said: “My name is Jesus, and I’m the one who killed your dad.” At that point I woke up and started writing the main idea of the film.”
Paula (Natasha Jaramillo) is a student at a university in Medellin, Colombia. She smokes doobies, attends student meetings, snaps photos, and protests the corrupt government system (every time the radio or TV is on, someone is talking about socio-economic difficulties in Colombia). Her father, Jose Maria (Camilo Escobar), is a lawyer who teaches at the same university. He encourages his students to “never stop asking questions” - great in theory, dangerous in practice, especially in Medellin (city authorities, Medellin’s private sector and La Oficina have had ties ever since Escobar imposed his “plata o plomo” rule in the 1980s and continue to be notoriously corrupt).
'KILLING JESUS' TRAILER
As he’s driving Paula home one day after class, Jose Maria is assassinated, shot dead from the back of a motorbike. The killer doesn’t see Paula but she catches a glimpse of his face as he escapes. Paula and her brother Santiago (Juan Pablo Trujillo) report all this to the police, who steal the expensive watch from their father’s body and advise them to move out of town or become the victims of reprisals.
Traumatised, Paula’s life spirals into a haze of booze and partying until one night, at a seedy nightclub, she sees her father’s killer. At first uncertain about what to do, she ditches her friends and returns to the club alone. The scar-faced young man dances over and introduces himself as Jesus.
The bulk of ‘Killing Jesus’ revolves around Paula and Jesus chatting and travelling around Medellin. Jesus, a surprisingly polite low-level gangster, is clearly trying to get a bead on this educated university babe. He tells her, “You’re the strangest thing I ever met in my life. But I like you. You’re cool.” Paula, meanwhile, is biding her time for an opportunity to kill Jesus - getting hold of an illegal gun is no easy matter unless you have the cash, and the middle part of the film charts Paula’s awkward attempts to enter Jesus’ world while getting hold of the murder weapon. Gradually, her feelings waver as she gets to know Jesus and his circumstances. Increasingly confused and doubtful, Paula realises she may not be able to pull the trigger when she needs to.
Cinematographer James L. Brown shows us a city teeming with life: a handheld camera and grainy photography captures the hum of the nightclubs, scenic views are found on mountainsides, backstreets glow with Christmas lights, sparklers and neon at night.
Jesus is a complex character, taking her to a picturesque location for her to take photos one moment, whipping out his gun and kicking stray dogs the next. When Paula asks Jesus to teach her how to shoot, he attempts to get Paula to embrace her anger. “Without hatred,” he tells her, “nothing happens.” As Paula learns more about Jesus, she realises that he is another victim of the system her father was so vehemently opposed to.
The real star of ‘Killing Jesus’ is Medellin itself, in all of its beauty and darkness. Cinematographer James L. Brown shows us a city teeming with life: a handheld camera and grainy photography captures the hum of the nightclubs, and scenic views are found on mountainsides. Appropriately for a film based on a dream, the backstreets of Medellin glow with Christmas lights, sparklers and neon at night. We watch as Paula and Jesus thread through Medellin’s alleyways on a motor cycle, swim in a clear forest stream, and ride bicycles down the steep slopes into the city, accompanied by a throbbing score from Sebastián Escofet.
Aside from the camerawork getting a little too frenetic at times and a script that abruptly forgets about Paula’s family, the chief weakness of ‘Killing Jesus’ lies in the casting - Mora Ortega wanted locals from Medellin because they spoke the slang more authentically than an actor. While Camilo Escobar effectively essays a nuanced take on Jesus as a likeable killer, Natasha Jaramillo doesn’t manage to summon the emotional range to keep the audience invested in Paula’s journey. It’s an exceedingly tricky role to play, progressing from calculated revenge to genuine sympathy to love, but Jaramillo remains a little too inscrutable, especially in the last act of the film.
Rough edges aside, ‘Killing Jesus’ is a well-shot, tense drama that traces the intersection of the complexities of grief, the journey towards empathy and the emotions behind revenge.