Synopsis – A journalist strikes up a romantic relationship with notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar.
My Take – Over the years, Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord and narcoterrorist, has notably been the subject of various forms of media. Well why shouldn’t he? With an estimated known net worth of $30 billion by the early 1990s through his drug business, he was one of the richest men in the world in his prime and as the head of the Medellin cartel, gave that city the highest murder rate in the world, it without a doubt, Escobar has left a dark legacy in the history. While various films, documentaries and TV series like Narcos, Paradise Lost, El Patron del Mal, Blow, The Infiltrator, American Made, Pablo of Medellin, The True Story of Killing Pablo, The Two Escobars among others have covered almost every aspect of his life, filmmakers are still trying to milk out their style of features centered around The King of Cocaine.
Here, Spanish director/writer Fernando León de Aranoa (Mondays in the Sun) bring his version as an adaption of the best-selling memoir of the Colombian author, journalist and Escobar’s former lover Virginia Vallejo entitled Amando a Pablo, odiando a Escobar aka Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar, and by pairing up real life couple and talent house, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, together, director Aranoa truly formed a recipe of success. Unfortunately, like history has repeatedly commented – passion projects almost never turn out well! This one too fails. On its own the film is actually quite decent for a one time watch, as they are a few things here to enjoy, especially Javier Bardem as Escobar.
But by any chance, if you have gone through the brilliant two seasons of the Netflix drama, Narcos, this film feels nothing but a short summary told from the viewpoint of one of its smaller characters. This combined by the fact that it’s almost Spanish cast is forced to speak in English in order to appeal to an International audience, comes out nothing but as a painful distraction.
The story follows Virginia Vallejo (Penelope Cruz), a popular journalist and Colombian TV diva, whose life changes following her visit to an exclusive VIP party at the ranch of Pablo Escobar (Javier Bardem). While at first like most people in Columbia, Virginia is skeptical about how a low-born man, suddenly gained so much money and power, and disturbed by the fact that how Escobar along with his drug trafficking friends lead the new generation of rich men of the country. Yet over time enchanted by his charisma, charity work, and the lavish gifts he keeps sending, Virginia begins a passionate love affair with Escobar despite him knowing that he is married to the long-suffering Victoria (Julieth Restrepo) and also has a young son.
However, when Escobar starts a bloody war in the country to eliminate all his enemies, destroying anything on his path, while unleashing his thirst for blood and ambition to rule everything, Virginia’s life descends into chaos. As death threats towards her become more and more violent, her only hope is to seek asylum in the United States, with the help of DEA agent Shepard (Peter Sarsgaard), who has been leading a pursuit to finish the Medellin cartel by any means possible.
Like I mentioned before the film certainly has moments of guilty pleasure and it’s always a pleasure to watch these two actors in action, there’s a little bit of a Scarface and Goodfellas approach to the film, yet when the end credits roll in it leaves you with an empty feeling. The problem is that this Spanish-Bulgarian co-production, which was shot on a modest budget never quite hits a consistent tone. While an early action sequence with a drug-filled plane landing on a highway offers the promise of excitement, the promise is never quite fulfilled. A major drag on the film is Virginia’s monotone narration, which tries to bridge the gaps between the choppy and disjointed scenes of Escobar’s rise and fall. Like I mentioned above, if you have seen Narcos especially, you are not missing much. That’s sad considering the great talent at hand and a director who has earned a reputation for creating unnerving scenes.
The misdirection is just a farce, as the filmmakers are more interested in Escobar than Virginia, so despite this supposedly being her take, there are plenty of scenes with Escobar, much of the plot includes things she didn’t witness and wouldn’t have known about first hand. The film follows the standard narrative sequences of any self-respecting Escobar film, by going through the motions of showing him as a politician, a man of the people, a thug, a prisoner, an escapee and then a man on the run before being killed.
Despite the promise of another angle, we are given the same story of Escobar again and nothing fresh regarding his relation with Virginia. More importantly why she loved and hated him at the same time. The tale of a superficial woman who lived in denial might’ve made for a fascinating film; this, for whatever reason, is not that film. Less is known of Vallejo, and so her story is the most intriguing one here, especially her friendship with US DEA Agent Shepard and her struggle to escape the moniker of being Escobar’s mistress.
The central relationship actually becomes rather sidelined, eclipsed by Pablo’s rise and blighted by his fall. He and Virginia grow apart, barring occasional reunions like a thoroughly weird, out-of-nowhere scene where he gives her a gun as a present, regaling her with a detailed description of what his enemies will do to her – not just rape her, but also insert “blenders and hairdryers in your vagina” and leave her to die! Unless she’s able to defend herself. Is he showing off? Trying to freak her out? Does he resent her relative innocence, or fear her betrayal? Any of these could be true – but the answer is we don’t know, because the relationship is too vague. What’s worse is that Virginia comes across as so repellent, so self-centered and morally bankrupt, in fact, that it’s oddly satisfying to watch her spend the final half hour or so in terrified self-pitying hysterics, often with rivulets of black mascara carving fjords into her thick make-up.
It’s a shame that her story is relegated to being part of the Escobar sideshow. It’s not bad film making wise, as director León de Aranoa utilizes many long takes where he finds creative camera angles. The build-up of tension is executed well. As soon as the intense man-hunt begins about half way through, then momentum is not lost. I liked that there’s a way to understand the motives and human sides of Escobar. Escobar was known as a brutal man who took revenge on anyone who crossed him. A few brief scenes show this brutality, but they stick out badly against the generally sympathetic depiction of Escobar as a family man and a philanthropist who built housing for the poor. But the filmmakers seem unwilling to embrace the dark side of the character, showing just hints of the carnage that Escobar’s reign caused.
There’s also the uncomfortable imbalance between the larkiness of the approach against the darkness of the material – notably when Escobar has a couple of his associate’s chain sawed to death, only for the scene to conclude with a flip one-liner. The result is more like a Latin American telenovela, focused on romantic moments with the mistress and domestic scenes with the wife and daughter. The street killings and other violence caused by Escobar seem almost disconnected from the plot.
Another biggest problem here, is that the film is in English. I read online that Bardem, who also produced this film, was actively trying to convince many studios for the film to be in Spanish. But none of them were willing to give them the green-light unless it was more international so it could appeal to a wider audience. The film suffered greatly because of that. They could still have spoken English whenever there’s interaction with characters from the United States, but a good deal of authenticity is lost and frankly, it was quite distracting. Both Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are top actors not only in Spain but are also known worldwide, mainly for their Oscar Wins and commercial success. But even their glorious performances can’t save this film.
Bardem‘s resemblance to Escobar is uncanny, as he has piled on the pounds to play the Colombian drug lord and seems determined to display his portly belly whenever he can. And despite the deep attractiveness, Bardem retains his trusted magnetism. Cruz is also fantastic here, despite an underwritten character. The fact that they are an odd couple fits the story line, as much is made of the fact that Virginia is a fashion icon who sees Escobar as a bit of rough, despite his burgeoning bank account. In supporting roles, Peter Sarsgaard exercises his usual smooth restraint to give some subtle presence to his routine lawman role, while Julieth Restrepo is restrained. On the whole, ‘Loving Pablo‘ is a strictly superficial biopic that offers a stale mix of romance, violence and politics.
Directed – Fernando León de Aranoa
Rated – R
Run Time – 123 minutes