Movie Review: Bardem, Cruz Light up ‘Loving Pablo’

Movie Review: Bardem, Cruz Light up ‘Loving Pablo’

The story of Pablo Escobar is now a well-worn tale thanks to numerous, books, TV shows, films and documentaries about the infamous Colombian drug lord, and especially the excellent Netflix series Narcos, which covered Escobar’s epic rise and fall over its first two seasons. 

For anyone who has seen Narcos - or is otherwise familiar with the story of Pablo Escobar - the new feature film Loving Pablo, from Spanish writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa (Mondays in the Sun, A Perfect Day) and based on the novel by Escobar’s mistress Virginia Vallejo, won’t contain many surprises. 

Despite coming from a new perspective, Loving Pablo plays out like a greatest hits of Escobar’s exploits: forming the Medellin cartel, running for congress, assassinating federal judges, evading extradition to the U.S., and constructing a luxurious prison on his immense Colombian estate while still conducting his drug running business. 

But Loving Pablo has one real plus going for it: the dynamite pairing of real-life husband and wife Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz as Escobar and Vallejo, who inject some real life into the movie, especially during their scenes together. 

Unfortunately, those are few and far between - ironic for a movie about Pablo Escobar told from the point of view of his mistress, a famous Colombian TV reporter. Cruz’s Vallejo is more of a narrator than an active participant in Loving Pablo, often describing major events in Escobar’s to which she did not bare witness. 

Bardem makes for a compelling Escobar, here presented as more of a crazed but pathetic family man as opposed to the ruthless businessman seen in previous takes on the character. Often topless with a huge gut hanging out over his trousers, one of the movie’s most memorable images is of a fully-nude Bardem fleeing an attacking helicopter through the forest, his bare ass flapping in the wind. 

But Loving Pablo’s two finest scenes occur between Bardem and Cruz, in which the character reveals his vile true nature. The first of which is a dinner conversation between Escobar and Vallejo in which Bardem’s creep graphically details exactly what his enemies will do to her; the second a visit to Escobar’s luxury prison during which Vallejo begs to know if she’s safe… and doesn’t exactly receive a vote of confidence. 

Bardem and especially Cruz are so good during these scenes that we wish Loving Pablo featured more of the two of them together. As the camera lingers on Vallejo’s face while Escobar describes the most horrific imagery imaginable, Loving Pablo briefly turns into the massively underrated The Counselor (which Bardem and Cruz also starred in), one of the few American films to depict the truly vile and hopeless nature of the drug cartels (and, sez me, one of the best movies of the past decade). 

In the end, however, Loving Pablo is not The Counselor, nor does it have the amount of time to make the kind of impact of Narcos. Instead, this is a glossy overview of the exploits of Pablo Escobar that is less effective as a real-life cautionary tale than it is as a showcase for its two talented leads. 

But on that level, Loving Pablo is still worth catching, and Bardem and Cruz really do light up the screen. Writer-director León de Aranoa’s film may be pedestrian in many other regards (though the 80s set design and Alex Catalán’s cinematography is first-rate) but its stars help make this a compelling experience regardless. 

Note: while most of the film is in English, characters freely slip into Spanish-language dialogue and slang, which is only subtitled in Czech in Prague cinemas.

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