Pablo Escobar was one of the biggest drug lords the world has ever seen. At the Zurich Film Festival, the movie Escobar: Paradise Lost premieres tonight. We’ve seen it and we can tell you, it’s definitely worth seeing.
This movie is a sinister one. There are no opening credits, very little if any soundtrack. What little there is, is mostly ambient sound that enhances the mood writer/director Andrea di Stefano wants to get across. It’s not a pretty movie, either. What is is, however, is an amazingly human and visceral film that tells the story of the people who had to work with and for Pablo Escobar, the world’s biggest drug lord to date.
You know these thoughts you have when it all gets a bit too much? Like «I’m going to move to a lonely island and open a café there and relax for the rest of my days»? That’s exactly what Nick (Josh Hutcherson) and his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) along with his pregnant wife and son did. They moved to Colombia to open a café with a surf shop.
When trying to get someone to transport some wood from the town to the beach where they’re building the café in the late 1980s, Nick meets Maria (Claudia Traisac) and the two fall in love. However, things quickly become problematic when Maria reveals that her uncle is Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro). Escobar just so happens to control 80% of the world’s cocaine market.
And from there on out, it all goes downhill. While the movie keeps getting better right up until its final scene, the lives of everyone in the movie go to hell.
Benicio del Toro and Other People
First and foremost, this movie impresses with the portrayal of Pablo Escobar. Benicio del Toro does a stellar job at portraying a rather unlikely villain. Because del Toro’s Escobar is not the cackling madman with a golden uzi in his hand, going on about his evil schemes. The first time we see him, he’s in a pool, playing with children. Other times, he’s on the couch, watching football, wearing a silly hat. Or he’s massaging his feet after a party. All in all, it is hard to think of del Toro’s Escobar as a villain. And because the real Escobar was and still is a kind of hero to some people, he’s a criminal still. So that portrayal, this lack of demonization, is what makes his so amazing.
That said, there is not a single scene in which del Toro does not manage to convey some sort of underlying threat. From the get-go, it is clear that Escobar is not a good man. Friendly, maybe. Good? No. Never. This is something the movie achieves by pitting Hunger Games-actor Josh Hutcherson as Nick against del Toro. Sure, whenever the two of them are in the same scene, Hutcherson gets immediately eclipsed by del Toro, but when Hutcherson has to carry the story, as it’s mainly his point of view we’re shown, he carries it well and with a great performance.
With that out of the way, let’s have a trip down memory lane and have a look at who this Pablo Escobar really was. Because it does help a lot to know the story behind one of the greatest criminals of the 20th century before watching the film.
The Real Pablo Escobar
Pablo Escobar, full name Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, was a Colombian drug lord. He dealt exclusively in cocaine. The drug dealing was the peak of a criminal career that lasted decades. He started off as a teenager where he allegedly stole gravestones, removed all engraving and decoration and resold them. There is some debate from the Escobar family whether or not this was a legit business, but either way, the dealings were kind of shady at best.
When not perhaps or perhaps not stealing gravestones, Pablo Escobar was a scam artist, a dealer of cigarettes, forger of lottery tickets, car thief, thief of other things than cars, kidnapper and bodyguard. All this, he somehow survived, despite the rough and dangerous working environment that this career brings with itself.
From a kidnapping, he made $100,000 with which he entered the drug trade. Because, you see, his family claims that Pablo had the goal of being a millionaire at age 22. He would be far richer than that, but it speaks of an early determination.
He rose through the ranks to become the leader of the Medellín drug cartel. At its peak in the mid 1980s – this is taken from the book The Accountants Story by Pablo’s brother Roberto who worked for Pablo as an accountant, the cartel could boast with the following claims.
- They spent $2500 a month to buy rubber bands to hold together the money they made. All $100 bills, mind you.
- Ten percent of the money was written off because rats would eat the $100 bills.
- They smuggled 15 tons of cocaine from Colombia to the USA every year.
- That cocaine had a worth of more than half a billion dollars.
- They had a fleet of over 15 airplanes that they used to fly the drugs from Colombia to Panama.
- They also owned six helicopters.
- For these planes to land, they owned a massive piece of land that included their own airport on the Bahamas.
- The cartel earned $60 million a day.
- They controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine.
- Escobar had, 1989, three billion dollars to his name, accordin to Forbes magazine
This operation made Pablo Escobar one of the richest men in the world. This, of course, brought him the attention of police. Not that they were uninterested in him before, but the more money he made, the more interesting he was. However, Escobar was smart. He had a simple policy of dealing with the authorities: Either bribe them or kill them.
In his name, hundreds were killed, more were bribed. Policemen, judges, state officials, customs officers, civilians. They either looked away and got money, or they were killed. When Escobar had the leaders of another cartel killed, he took over that cartel.
You’d think that this would make him unpopular with the people, because you’d assume that people wouldn’t like someone who either made him an accessory to what was arguably the world’s largest drug dealing operation or kill them. However, this wasn’t so. Pablo Escobar was very, very popular, especially in poor communities. Because, you see, he cultivated a kind of Robin Hood image. He stole from the rich and cocaine addicted Americans and built football fields, schools, financed politicians and threw lavish parties. He even had a brief stint as a legit politician himself. And because he was such a good guy, people of villages didn’t mind when Escobar ordered people killed because they were in his way. In fact, he even gave bounties to the people if they killed a policeman or two. More than 600 policemen died due to this. Colombia turned into the murder capital of the world.
Pablo Escobar was married and a devout Christian. He fathered two children. He once walked out of a luxury prison.
However, this story of international crime that was so big that it topped the net worth of many a big company, didn’t last. The Americans were obviously rather unhappy with the whole thing so they did whatever they could to put a stop to him. In December 1993, they managed. Pablo Escobar died on the 2nd of that month. He was shot to death, some say. Others say that the authorities only managed to wound him and that he committed suicide.
The Story with the Hippos
While writing this I’m being informed that this article will not be complete without the story of the hippos. So in his prime. Escobar owned a private zoo, because why wouldn’t he. In that zoo, he had a bunch of hippopotamuses. After his death, the zoo was more or less decommissioned and 14 years later, people near the former zoo began reporting sightings of hippos. Well, not hippos. But «strange creatures with tiny ears and big mouths» because they had never seen a hippo before.
As it turns out, the hippos of Escobar’s zoo thrived and ran wild. So the problem now is this: There’s an unknown number of hippos in Colombia and nobody quite knows what to do with them.
So. Yeah. Hippos as a legacy. Why not.
While there’s not much to be said about the movie’s plot because it would quickly devolve into me spoiling half the film, it’s definitely a movie worth seeing. The portrayals of the people are believable and very impressive, the cinematography is fitting and the shaky-cam is not overused.
And as of writing this on scene at the ZFF, I am running out of battery. There are no powerplugs here, so I’m cutting this short. Go see the film, it’s fantastic.