It’s a crime the makers of Loving Pablo didn’t save a place for Al Pacino in its cast. Could one conceive of a more fitting cherry to top a telenovela sundae made with one scoop The Godfather and one scoop Scarface, topped with Donnie Brasco sprinkles and tasty chunks of Carlito’s Way? I think not.
Written and directed by Fernando León de Aranoa (Sabina), the picture is based on the 2007 memoir Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar by Virginia Vallejo, the cartel founder’s longtime mistress. It’s a rollicking Day-Glo rise-and-fall-athon that cuts its crime with blood-soaked camp. And who better to bring the Bill Gates of Blow back to life than screen psychopath par excellence Javier Bardem?
The Oscar winner, who’s dreamed of making a movie about Escobar for decades, also serves as producer. For the first time, Bardem and real-life spouse Penélope Cruz play romantic leads. Cruz portrays Vallejo, one of Colombia’s best-known journalists and TV personalities when she found herself invited to a star-studded party on Escobar’s estate in 1981.
The film opens with her recalling the magic moment when the larger-than-life drug lord, who’d amassed billions in a few years, took a select group of guests on a tour of his private savanna. She recalls her awe at the sight of elephants, giraffes and hippos roaming the vast expanse. Despite knowing Escobar was married and had young children, Vallejo promptly fell under his spell.
As de Aranoa quickly makes clear, the zoo’s occupants weren’t the only animals on the premises. Bardem portrays Escobar as a volatile combination of entrepreneurial genius and ruthless ambition. He happily hams it up, taking the viewer through often-unfamiliar chapters of the narco-terrorist’s life.
His stint as a member of the Colombian Congress, for example. Cunningly, Escobar secured his power base by helping the poor when no one else in the government could be bothered. The script juggles the time line a bit but accurately recounts Escobar’s use of his influence, authority and personal fortune to build homes and soccer fields, and even bring water and electricity to impoverished parts of the country.
When Escobar wasn’t making like Mother Teresa, of course, his professional style could be reminiscent of Tony Montana. Yes, the film has a chain saw scene. And, yes, there’s memorable stuff involving a jungle-skimming helicopter. The mountains of coke go without saying. But Escobar didn’t get to be the richest criminal in history without a few tricks all his own.
Loving Pablo gives us some of the gangster’s greatest hits. Several merit a place alongside the most iconic moments in mob cinema. There’s the broad-daylight drug drop by a jetliner that lands on a highway. There’s Escobar’s solution to judicial persecution: paying street kids to shoot police officers and judges. There’s the palatial prison the government allowed him to build, with a bar, Jacuzzi, waterfall and soccer field. He felt obliged to break out of it anyway.
Cruz is given relatively little to do, aside from glamming up the proceedings and handling voice-over duties. It’s Bardem’s show and, while he won’t be taking home any new award-season hardware, he does studied, eminently watchable work. His prosthetic gut, kinky wig and fake neck fat, by contrast, could well draw best special effects consideration.
“El Padrino,” the people called Escobar. The godfather. Bardem’s passion project hits streaming services next month. You might not wind up loving Pablo, exactly, but his story’s a killer. Even without Pacino. More