Javier Bardem’s two-hour train crash about Pablo Escobar


Your correspondent does not claim any pedigree in the art of reviewing movies. Yet for all his humble credentials, Javier Bardem playing Pablo Escobar reminded him of the dreadful interpretation of El Zorro by his colleague and fellow Spaniard Antonio Banderas in 1998. If you want to get a feel of Escobar and his wars —against his rivals in the drug trade, against his own friends and the Colombian people— you will be better off with Narcos on Netflix. Even if you can’t watch the entire series, any chapter of the first two seasons will be vastly superior to this train-wreck of a movie that goes painfully on for more than two hours.

As in Banderas (who surprisingly got raving reviews back in the day, perhaps helped by a cast that included Anthony Hopkins: that never goes wrong), the first thing grating the ears of the audience is language. Banderas was as appalling giving voice to El Zorro in English as is Bardem in the role of history’s most powerful drug dealer in Loving Pablo. But in the latter case is even worse.

El Zorro at least was an American creation, so the case for having a Spanish actor speaking in English with a thick accent was more defensible than doing so for a Colombian character in a movie set in Medellín, where he mostly interacts with his countrymen.

But what makes it even worse is that sometimes it can be very difficult to understand what actors with a thick Spanish accent they are trying to disguise as Colombian while speaking in English are saying or mumbling. Thankfully there were subtitles in Italian to save your correspondent. If you want to hear English with a Colombian accent just walk around Jackson Heights or any other Latino neighborhood in Queens, New York. In this movie you get a barely understandable caricature of that.

It was a concession he made —a very big one— to get financing for the movie and make it viable. Even if you can allow for that, the stiff acting by most of the cast and a terrible script make things even worse. It all looks like a big school play, in which supporting actors seem to be trying to impress a particularly wicked headmaster, again —it must be said— very uncomfortably in a language not their own and, most importantly, not the characters’ they represent. And evil indeed Escobar is.

We all knew it, as we knew how it ended. But still. The scenes of violence come across as wantonly gruesome most of the time, as if inserted to make up for a story that does not hold up. And that’s a shame, because fewer characters in the world could offer more elements for a powerful drama than Escobar and the violence he unleashed around him.

Take the script. The bad lines are too many to list them all. A sample of two: Penélope Cruz, in the role of Virginia, a journalist and lover of Escobar, says that is “better to cry in a private jet than in the bus,” a clumsy rewording of the phrase attributed to Marilyn Monroe about crying in the back seat of a Cadillac. Even if it is taken from real life, it just worsened a poor script because the quip falls flat.

Never mind that Cruz, as Virginia, appears simply as a loose woman who happens to have a good job as a TV anchor. Again, her character —based on real-life journalist Virginia Vallejo— is much more nuanced and convincing in Narcos. But there is a memorably catastrophic line when the DEA agent tells Cruz, who looks splendid at all times in the movie, that it would be hard for her to get another job in reporting not only because of her association with Escobar, but because her looks and legs “are not what they used to be.”

You would not expect DEA agents to be good judges of feminine beauty, but you see Cruz sitting across from him with her all impossibly gorgeous looks in full display and it makes you wonder if the man has left is eyeglasses home. Why would a woman like her —who could have any man at her feet in seconds— attempt to seduce such a dull man so blatantly is beyond comprehension.

It all is a shame, really. For Bardem at the press conference in the Venice Film Festival spoke persuasively about his drive to interpret Pablo Escobar, his fascination with the magnetism that such a slow and passive man as the drug-lord was in real life mobilized those around him to follow him and commit the worst atrocities to satisfy his blood thirst.

And once and again, Bardem made very clear that there is right and wrong, and that Escobar was a monster. He made a passionate call to fight the thrill of the crime life, that it was a false way out of poverty, that it only creates death and destruction, and he warned Mexico is now going down that road as Colombia once did. In response to a question from Verb.Company, he said he thought Escobar was on a quest for respect, which in the end was self-destructive, dragging with him many lives. From this character, Bardem added, he learned that he wanted to be “on the good side of things.” Bardem has deservedly earned respect for an outstanding career. It can be forgiven for this mishap.

Sean Penn interviews El Chapo Guzmán

An actor of ample talent and generous means, Sean Penn dabbles in journalism as a hobby: he can afford it and, more importantly, he does it with competence. Indeed, he pulled off a journalistic feat by interviewing for Rolling Stone one of the most sought men in the world: El Chapo Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa drug cartel. There are, however, three problems with his interview: the first one is the editing, with a few convoluted sentences that fell through the editing comb, misspellings in the very few Spanish words used (these days this is unacceptable in a major U.S. publication), and profanities that add no value to the writing and only undermine respect for the writer; the second one is the use of a collective “We” to mean the American society, by claiming that they are supporting the drug cartels with demand (but only some Americans use drugs, and some, as yours sincerely, would object to be lumped together, even though it may be true that “nobody knows who he is working for”); but the third, more important issue, is the very long introduction with which Sean Penn attempts to justify his eventually successful quest. It bespeaks of a convoluted morality—adolescent at that—of a man who notes the hypocrisy of it all, of governments that deal in weapons and embark on futile and by necessity deadly wars, and of corporations that launder the cartels’ dirty money yet take to the pulpit to condemn “narcos” and the illicit drugs businesses. Isn’t all this wrong? Indeed. It has always been, and it still is. As it happens, El Chapo is very much aware of what he does and, he acknowledges, in his short responses to the questions, that yes, “it’s a reality that drugs destroy.” He goes on to say in simple sentences that he loves his mother, thanks God for the good things he has in life, and that his family is doing well. El Chapo is no hero and makes no claim to it, yet in his straightforwardness and common sense of a small town Mexican, he has an integrity and honesty about himself that clearly so many people struggle to find, in the haze and confusion about what’s right and wrong. Or that two wrongs—the hypocrisy of politics and drug trafficking, for instance—don’t make one right. Next time Sean Penn ventures into journalism, he may spare readers his inner moral debates and go straight to the story, which is a good piece of writing. And that should be all that matters.