Escobar: Paradise Lost, 2014.
Written and directed by Andrea Di Stefano.
Starring Benicio Del Toro, Josh Hutcherson, Claudia Traisac and Brady Corbet.
A young Canadian surfer falls in a love with a local young Columbian woman and soon discovers her uncle is the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar.
A fictionalized romance against the backdrop of true events is always a tricky one to balance for the romance either does a disservice to the events, or can detract from it. Either way, Andrea Di Stefano bravely decides to focus more on the young love between good-guy surfer Nick (Josh Hutcherson) and health worker Maria (Claudia Traisac), rather than on the atrocities of drug lord-cum-political corrupter Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro). The character introductions of Nick/Maria’s overt niceties presuppose a divide between the couple and the ominous presence of Escobar’s power.
The film begins with Nick and Maria packing frantically in their sweltering, cramped apartment before a Columbian henchman bangs on the door requesting Nick. Nick is then taken to meet with other Columbian henchmen and drug traffickers where they are met with Escobar; Nick’s task is laid out in excruciating detail involving the placement of many large containers in an abandoned cave, and the killing of a man – this something Nick openly admits he has never done before. When the film flashes back to reveal how Nick ended up here, much of the tension is elevated and early signs of the narrative pitfalls begin to surface.
If one is familiar with the infamous drug lord then one understands the reign of violence he inflicted, and how some citizens saw him as a Robin Hood-type character, then who is already aware the extent of Escobar’s power. Therefore, when Maria reveals to Nick she is related to Escobar, and Nick is consequently introduced into the family, those earlier shots of Nick carrying out a task foreshadows he will be, in-part, accepted. Furthermore, as the film reveals minor snippets of Escobar’s violent actions through Nick’s perspective, the audience already knows and this lacks any tension. Conversely, if one isn’t familiar with Escobar, then the aforementioned narrative structure dissipates any tension of our protagonist’s survival. In short, prior knowledge is a disservice to the revelations of Escobar’s character, and a lack of is short-changed due to narrative structure.
The strengths of the film, however, reside elsewhere. del Toro portrays Escobar as a mysterious patriarch of both his family and his nation, for his intentions are seldom revealed. In the press notes, Di Stefano remarks Marlon Brando’s and Al Pacino’s roles in The Godfather as an influence in shaping the Escobar character, for it is what is said in the privacy of one’s home that reveals more of one’s intentions, ambitions, and objectivity. del Toro indeed does bring much menace, and imposes plenty of fear onto the young couple when things go awry.
Nick and Maria’s relationship is melodramatic, schmaltzy, and serviceable, but the performances from Hutcherson and Traisac simply make it adorable that it’s difficult not to be won over. To find them in this situation is part unbelievable, and part terrible, and while these two components may not wholly mesh, it’d be hard to not want them to succeed.
Di Stefano’s camerawork proves he is well suited in the action genre. The use of space, environment, and close-ups evoke plenty of tension. The open landscapes of the Columbian fields with its ominous grey clouds, and the confined spaces during Escobar and Nick’s conversations with minimal lighting all emphasize the danger Nick is ever-present in.
Escobar: Paradise Lost does a huge disservice to the notorious Pablo Escobar drug lord as its narrative focus is on the fictionalized couple, and greater so on Nick. If one is aware of Escobar, many of the scenes will be filler, and if not, then its narrative structure will dissipate much tension. The camerawork, the cinematography, and the performances may hold audience’s attention, but looming over the film watching experience will be the niggling question, “why aren’t we watching more of Pablo?” Why, indeed.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★