A fresh dramatic perspective breathes some welcome new life into the modern drug trade genre in Escobar: Paradise Lost. This ambitious directorial debut by Italian actor Andrea Di Stefano takes some helpful hints from The Godfather in concentrating on the family circle around a notorious criminal figure, making possible a multi-dimensional view of the notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar which is further aided by a full-bodied performance from Benicio del Toro.
With dedicated handling by Radius, this absorbing and increasingly tense multi-lingual melodrama could achieve ample box office traction with young mainstream viewers, courtesy of co-star Josh Hutcherson, as well as with the large U.S. Hispanic audience.
The action is framed by a decisive moment in Escobar’s life when, in 1991, he agreed to give himself up and go to prison. Before that, however, he calls in six trusted lieutenants, conspicuously including young gringo Nick (Hutcherson), who pledge absolute loyalty and agree to transport large stashes of unidentified valuables in remote locations. For Nick, this will also oblige him to kill an unknown peasant who will guide him to the spot, something he’s never done before.
Jumping back in time a few years, the film assumes a relaxed posture in keeping with the surfer boy lifestyle of Nick, who has come from Canada to hang in a tropical paradise with his brother (Brady Corbet). They’re easy-going and naïve as well as conspicuous; at one point, a gang of local thugs tells them to clear off “their” land, a warning the boys ignore.
Nick’s life takes a decisive turn once he becomes involved with the vivacious young beauty Maria (Spanish actress Claudia Traisac), who works in a local clinic and also happens to be a favorite niece of Escobar, who shortly turns up in the small town to dedicate the renovated health facility he’s financed. Escobar himself is an unprepossessing figure — he’s mangy, fat, sloppily dressed — but this may even be one of the things that ingratiates him with the people; he’s like them, only bigger, and he speaks to the adoring crowd like a populist, down-to-earth politician who says he always has the interests of the poor at heart.
Acknowledging Nick’s doubts, Maria pooh-poohs her boyfriend’s disapproval of the cocaine trade, stressing the drug’s longtime medicinal use locally and claiming that her uncle is merely “exporting the national product.” Before long, in a scene equivalent to the opening wedding sequence in The Godfather, she takes him to a huge party at Escobar’s compound, where the host is seen frolicking in the pool with little kids; it doesn’t take long for the agreeable, perennially upbeat Nick to be welcomed, at least superficially, into the family.
Thus begins the gradual process of Nick’s co-option by Escobar, a process he doesn’t even notice as it’s happening. After Nick is physically assaulted in town by the young toughs who menaced him before, he mentions it to Escobar, who “takes care of it.” Shrewdly, Di Stefano doesn’t show this violence, or much else for a long time, a move that makes the audience complicit with Nick’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind position toward the drug kingpin; Escobar is closing the pincers around Nick without the kid even being aware of it.
Although Hutcherson’s The Hunger Games fans may not mind, the romantic interplay between Nick and Maria gets a bit tiresome and redundant due to the fact that they’re both so extremely nice and agreeable; Nick’s naivete and goody two-shoes Canadianism (he stresses that he’s not a Yank) also prove wearisome. At a certain point, however, Nick realizes that he’s getting sucked in over his head, and when the flagrant assassination of the Minister of Justice causes national outrage and Escobar goes on the run, must assume disguises and, at one point, hides out at Nick and Maria’s home, Nick finally realizes how fully imperiled he’s become.
Di Stefano shows some real directorial chops in the film’s central and impressively extended action-suspense sequence. Obliged to transport the ”goods” to a remote town, from where a local will take him to a secret location, the stuff will be buried in a cave and then covered up by an explosion, whereupon Nick will shoot the man dead and takeoff, the petrified Nick is thrown for a loop when a kid shows up instead to guide him to the cave. The tension then steadily mounts over a very long period, as Nick must deal with the boy and eventually hide in unfamiliar territory from both Escobar’s top guns as well as from local on-the-take cops who inexorably close in on him. Inspired by but not directly based on real events, the climax is not exactly shocking in context but is nonetheless powerful.
Although Hutcherson remains the drama’s central focus and point of audience identification, del Toro’s presence, like Brando’s in The Godfather, looms over everything that happens here. It’s a physically self-effacing role — the actor is a long way from his former dreamboat self — but he is completely convincing as the extravagantly generous family man, crowd-loving public figure and supremely manipulative and treacherous criminal; you really get the sense of a large spider that can sense even the slightest vibration at the most distant points on his vast web.
Very unlike The Godfather, this film doesn’t have a rich supply of memorable supporting roles, nor the bigger view of society at large. Still, it’s an impressive debut, an ambitious project pulled off with confidence.
Production: Chapter 2, Pathe, Orange Studio, Roxbury, Paradise Lost Film, Nexus Factory, Umedia, Jouror Development
Opens: November 25 (Radius)
Cast: Benicio del Toro, Josh Hutcherson, Claudia Traisac, Brady Corbet, Carlos Bardem, Ana Giradot, Micke Moreno
Director: Andrea Di Stefano
Screenwriter: Andrea Di Stefano
Producer: Dimitri Rassam
Executive producers: Benicio del Toro, Josh Hutcherson, Moritz Borman
Director of photography: Luis Sansans
Production designer: Carlos Conti
Costume designer: Marylin Fitoussi
Editors: Maryline Monthieux, David Brenner
Music: Max Richter