Movie Review: Loving Pablo

A film about drug lord Pablo Escobar stresses romance over action

Loving Pablo (Escobar)
Directed by Fernando León de Aranoa
With Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Peter Sarsgaard

If people know one name from the cocaine trade of the 1980s, it is Pablo Escobar. His life story is told from the point of view of his mistress in Loving Pablo, based on the book Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar.

The mistress, Virginia Vallejo, was a news presenter who met Escobar just as he was consolidating his power over the other drug lords in Colombia and dividing up the sales territories in the biggest market, the United States.

Spanish actor Javier Bardem has long dreamed of bringing the story of the notorious drug lord to the screen. He stars as Escobar and also was one of the producers of the film. His real-life wife, Penelope Cruz, plays Virginia Vallejo.

The film is shot mostly in English, with people slipping into Spanish on some occasions to whisper something for no logical reason.

Loving Pablo, a Spanish-Bulgarian co-production, was shot on a modest budget in never quite hits a consistent tone. An early action sequence with a drug-filled plane landing on a highway offers the promise of excitement, but that promise is never fulfilled.

A major drag on the film is Penelope Cruz's monotone narration, which tries to bridge the gaps between the choppy and disjointed scenes of Escobar's rise and fall. Films should show the story, not explain it.

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.

The filmmakers seem unwilling to embrace the dark side of the character, showing just hints of the carnage that Escobar's reign caused.

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.

Virginia Vallejo says that people tune in to her news show to see what she is wearing, and not to hear the news. This superficial notion carries its way through Loving Pablo, as the film itself never looks beneath the surface.

Another stumbling block is the odd-looking makeup on Bardem to make him look fat. A corpulent Escobar is seen shirtless several times, and the prosthetic makeup is just too distracting, and perhaps the scariest thing in the whole film.

Darkest Hour, the recent biography of Winston Churchill, set a high standard for such effects. Loving Pablo does not reach the mark.

The makeup and the melodramatic script reduce Escobar to a caricature of a villain, rather than a man who made his own country the murder capital of the world.

The film is told in flashback, with Virginia Vallejo having turned herself into US authorities, represented by Peter Sarsgaard as an agent named Shepard.

Not everything in the film though, comes from her point of view, even though she is supposedly telling her side of the story. Much of the plot includes things she didn't witness and wouldn't have known about first hand.

Both Bardem and Cruz are top actors not only in Spain but worldwide, and this film with its undercooked mix of romance, violence and politics is far from their best work.

Similar ground was covered much better in the 2000 film Blow, which also featured Penelope Cruz alongside Johnny Depp as drug smuggler George Jung.

The 2017 film American Made, starring Tom Cruise as drug smuggler Barry Seal, took a bit of a comedic tone to the Reagan-era drug policies and the problems they caused in Latin America. But it also gets a bit more beneath the surface of the events to show some of the real politics involved.

Both of these films give a lot more insight into Pablo Escobar, even though he is not the main focus.

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