'Loving Pablo': Film Review | Venice 2017

A comic-book look at the Medellin cartel.

Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are drug lord Pablo Escobar and his mistress in Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s English-language biodrama.

Like flipping through the pages of a pulpy best-seller, watching Loving Pablo has its moments of guilty pleasure but leaves an empty feeling when you reach the end. This is the story of the rise and fall of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar Gaviria, founder of the Medellin cartel, as told in voiceover by his glamorous mistress Virginia Vallejo. The clever pairing of Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz as the vividly larger-than-life couple should give this lavish-looking English-language co-production a shot at the international box office before shifting to smaller screens. It will bow in Toronto right after its Venice launch out of competition.

Glossy and action-packed, Loving Pablo marks a turn towards the mainstream for Fernando Leon de Aranoa, the award-winning Spanish writer-director best known for social and political dramas like Mondays in the Sun, which featured a much younger Bardem as an unemployed dockworker, and his 2015 English-language debut A Perfect Day, starring Benicio Del Toro and Tim Robbins as humanitarian aid workers stationed in Bosnia. Of course, Escobar rose from the slums and was closely involved in government corruption during his reign of terror in Colombia, and it is perhaps this aspect that enticed the director. 

What holds the film down to its level of superficial glitz is being adapted from Vallejo’s own novel/memoir Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar. The story is told almost entirely from her p.o.v. via worldly witticisms like her opening observation, on board an American plane that is taking her “to safety”: “This is the first time I had to leave a country because of a man.”

Vallejo's first meeting with the notorious drug lord dates to 1981, when she is flown into a mega-party on his hacienda along with other famous people. A stunning redhead, she already has her own TV news show and her initial curiosity about her host could be mistaken for professional instinct. Heavy-set but magnetic, wearing a mustache and bad hair, Bardem bears a fair resemblance to Escobar. He bewitches Vallejo on the spot. When she asks him what the occasion is, he tells her he’s creating a foundation to help the homeless. But as a narrator she explains that the party is actually in honor of the founding of the infamous Medellin drug cartel and the crowning of Escobar as its king.

In the early days of their relationship, Vallejo has the feeling he is showing her off as a trophy to his social group of drug traffickers and bodyguards. But his wealth and power are irresistible. She coyly pretends she doesn't know how he makes a living. Actually, the cartel is doing fantastic business bringing cocaine into the U.S. In an eye-popping illustration of its power, a huge truck blocks a Florida highway to allow a plane to land. Instantly, traffickers appear out of nowhere and unload mountains of coke, then abandon the plane in the middle of the highway when the state troopers show up.

By now Escobar is a billionaire many times over (at his peak he was estimated to have a net worth of $30 billion, and this was in the 1990s). But too much is never enough, and ignoring the pleas of his sensible wife (Colombian actress Julieth Restrepo), he crosses a new frontier into politics. After calculating the cost of running for Congress, he realizes it’s peanuts. Along with the other smugglers in the cartel, Escobar begins financing both candidates to be sure he has the winner in his pocket. By day, his planes fly the candidates around on the campaign trail; by night, they fly drugs into the U.S.

When the story focuses on history this way, it becomes a fascinating gangster story in the best tradition. Escobar’s daring determination and wily astuteness know no bounds, and his next step is to run for office himself. He wins, of course. His platform is single-minded: to vote down a new extradition law that would allow the American DEA, FBI and CIA to get their hands on him.

Vallejo has already been contacted by a certain Agent Shepard from the DEA (Peter Sarsgaard) in a series of lusterless, conventional scenes. In their meetings, he tries to get her to help them capture Escobar, while she tries to get him into bed with “a real Colombian woman.” Her attraction to this straight-laced agent, the polar opposite of Escobar, is inexplicable.  

The action picks up back in Medellin and Bogota, where Escobar has been booted out of Congress and responds by training squads of teenage hitmen from the slums to shoot at targets from motorcycles: politicians, ministers, cops.

All-out warfare breaks out between the cartel and the government and turns the country upside down. For each policeman killed, the government executes 10 teenage boys. Escobar starts blowing up commercial aircraft. His gruesome fantasies emerge in a pair of hideous torture scenes: In one, a big dog is strapped to the back of the hapless victim and beaten until it rips the man's throat out; later on, two business associates who resist paying Escobar are dismembered with a chain saw in a bar.

The latter scene takes place while Escobar is living in a luxurious “prison” he built for himself, where under police protection he is reorganizing his drug empire. But the tide is turning against him, and the final scenes have a melancholy quality and the bitter taste of betrayal.

In English tinged with a Spanish accent (like the rest of the cast), Cruz plays the glamorous anchorwoman — frequently shown on the cover of glossy magazines as well as the TV news — with sparkle and spunk and an eye-catching wardrobe, but the role itself is the stuff of daytime drama. One honest scene comes late in the film when Vallejo desperately confronts her former lover and asks him for $80,000 to leave the country and make a new life, and he answers by threatening her physically. Naked terror takes away the character’s fakeness.

Glowering and seductive, Bardem’s Escobar is an outsize character who attracts with his charisma and repulses with his calculating, unblinking eyes. Vaunting a notable gut that is often left arrogantly exposed, he is a dominant physical presence as well as the most dangerous man in the room.

Alex Catalan’s lighting makes a nice arc from the joyous fiesta colors of the early courtship scenes to the dark horrors of mass murder, torture and prison. Period songs like "Black Magic Woman" and "Evil Ways" rev up the score by Federico Jusid.

Production companies: Escobar Films, B2Y Eood Sofia
Cast: Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Peter Sarsgaard, Julieth Restrepo
Director: Fernando Leon de Aranoa
Screenwriter: Fernando Leon de Aranoa, based on the novel by Virginia Vallejo
Producers: Dean Nichols, Javier Bardem, Miguel Menendez de Zubillaga, Kalina Kottas
Executive producer: Andrew Calderon
Director of photography: Alex Catalan
Production designer: Alain Bainee
Costume designers: Loles Garcia Galean, Wanda Morales
Editor: Nacho Ruiz Capillas
Music: Federico Jusid
Casting director: Juan Pablo Rincon
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
World sales: Millenium Media

123 minutes