The Jakarta Post
At its core, Loving Pablo is a rinse-and-repeat of the tales of the late notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. (YouTube/Eagle Films)
At its core, Loving Pablo is a rinse-and-repeat of the tales of the late notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Escobar, like most kings, has his own castle. When his was brought down after the fall of his cartel, the Medellín Cartel, and a series of murders befalling his associates, the Colombian drug lord had perhaps inadvertently revealed a few cracks in those in his orbit: American consumers of his cocaine, and rampant poverty in some Colombian cities, including Medellín, his hometown. He was killed in 1993, on a rooftop, where members of the Colombian task force who shot him grinned in front of his bloody corpse.
But murder and catastrophe were the raw deal anybody could get if they decided to err on the side of danger. The Medellín Cartel was allegedly linked to the deaths of many Colombian politicians, including Rodrigo Lara, Colombia’s minister of justice, and Luis Carlos Galán, a presidential candidate. Thousands of lives — passengers on an airplane, policemen on patrol — were lost in vain, for the king had given his command.
Both of Escobar’s competing reputations — a murderous king and the Robin Hood to some impoverished communities — have reached our screens.
The first two seasons of Narcos, the Netflix series, chronicles the Medellín Cartel’s rise and fall, and Benicio del Toro plays Escobar in Escobar: Paradise Lost. The latest, Loving Pablo, based on the memoir of journalist, asylee and Escobar mistress Virginia Vallejo also charts Escobar’s many infractions and victories.
This time, Vallejo’s eyes (Penélope Cruz) follow Javier Bardem’s Escobar. Both actors are electrifying. It does seem like an effortless job by Bardem to portray Escobar. His quiet demeanor never betrays his cold blood. Cruz, too, portrays the often-vain, embattled TV anchor with remarkable composure. The chilling scene when Escobar physically threatens Vallejo at one point is disturbing, but convincingly acted.
Vallejo was enamored by Escobar’s wealth, having met him for the first time at a lavish party held in his luxurious hacienda. Narco millionaires or narco terrorists sure have a way of attracting a lady. Comfort blinds Vallejo to Escobar’s cocaine-smuggling enterprise, rendering her complicit to the audience watching. Or rather, she elects to turn a blind eye. “Seeing him in his natural habitat,” Vallejo says in a voice-over, “is addictive”.
But the story focuses less on Vallejo’s psyche and more on Escobar, both the family man and the kingpin. We see him get elevated to public office, lose that seat, and hire sicarios (hitmen) to murder those who dare disrespect him or get in the way of his business in Colombia. We see the Medellín Cartel tap into a healthy market on American soil, using a Florida highway as a landing strip to drop off the goods.
Loving Pablo sounds like an interesting case for a movie about Escobar that dismantles the need to merely chronicle his crimes. However, the film, written and directed by Fernando León de Aranoa, feels tedious. Glimpses of Vallejo’s deterioration are seen, but hardly explored.
Cruz’s voice-overs give the film a whiff of a telenovela. The movie also has songs in English and Spanish. Despite the makeup, Loving Pablo tells a story of Pablo Escobar artlessly, capitalizing just on the strengths of its actors. Peter Sarsgaard’s Drug Enforcement Administration agent Shepard is competent, but not very memorable.
What Loving Pablo counts on (and thrives in) lies in its thriller components. There’s a scene where helicopters hover above Escobar’s hideout in the woods. Naked, Escobar flees while the deaths of his associates are shown, propelled by Vallejo’s narration. These are fun elements indeed.
In spite of its scattered storytelling, Loving Pablo still manages to capture the harsh reality that the sins of Escobar’s past were abetted or, at worst, aided by several parties, including Vallejo.
Biographies do not always have to carry this burden to absolve or relitigate their subjects. But Aranoa took the intriguing task of adding a complexity we have yet to see about Pablo Escobar and merely walked with it.
Director: Fernando León de Aranoa
Writer: Fernando León de Aranoa
Cast: Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Peter Sarsgaard, Julieth Restrepo, David Valencia
Running time: 125 minutes