A fictional retelling of the bloody final days of the Medellin cartel, Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar: Paradise Lost brings a personal touch to Escobar’s violence.
Last Daysby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
A fictional retelling of the final days of Pablo Escobar’s cocaine-trafficking cartel that at its height netted over half a billion dollars a week and committed over 4000 murders, actor-turned-director Andrea Di Stefano’s debut feature Escobar: Paradise Lost isn’t so much a portrait of the Colombian kingpin as a Married To The Mob type thriller, as one man attempts to escape Escobar’s tight grip. It’s loosely based on the story of an Italian citizen who became embroiled in the Medellín cartel, but with Josh Hutcherson executive-producing, it becomes the story of Nick – now Canadian – who stumbles into paradise with his brother looking for the perfect surf. And with Benicio del Toro as the notorious drugs baron providing the acting chops, who after Che parts I and II seems to be making the most of his south-of-the-border roles of America’s Most Wanted, Escobar: Paradise Lost makes for a thrilling and a strangely personal testament to a most violent man.
Nick (Josh Hutcherson) and his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) have moved to a beach on the Colombian coast to set up a surf shack. But it’s not long before they’re harassed by the local bruisers for building on “their” land. Picking up timber in the village, Josh meets Maria (Claudia Traisac) – the beautiful niece of Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro). And it’s not long before her uncle comes to town – to open the clinic they’ve built together to help the poor and needy. Soon after however, Nick is savaged by the local gang’s dog and when, at Pablo’s birthday party at the Hacienda Nápoles, Nick mentions his troubles with the gang, they’re soon found dangling from a tree, their bodies burned. Later Maria and Nick become engaged, and bound to the family, Nick is offered a job at the hacienda, where he becomes embroiled in more than he bargained for. Much more.
Opening with Pablo Escobar praying with his mother on the telephone in his own private Garden of Gethsemane the night before handing himself in, there’s a strangely religious resonance to Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar: Paradise Lost as we weave from a small crucifix-adorned chapel in the jungle all the way to a church in central Bogota. And caught up in these apocalyptic final days of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel – which sees the money safely stowed and all witnesses razed – there’s Nick, both a Christian and a Canadian (most definitely not a Yank), trapped in a burning house of cards, as Escobar ties up all his loose ends. Despite a brief moment when Nick is seduced by Escobar’s wealth and charisma, it’s not a question of broken loyalties, but rather of innocence lost, as Nick – reeling from the news of his brother’s death, and hearing via a public call-box the murder of his sister-in-law and nephew – takes up arms and shoots his way to freedom. It’s a cinematic guilt however that won’t go unpunished, as Nick, sitting in a church pew with blood on his hands, slowly bleeds out from a bullet wound to the stomach.
With a gripping performance from Josh Hutcherson and a well scripted cat-and-mouse script, Escobar: Paradise Lost is at its best during its central narrative of Nick outwitting Escobar’s murderous goons. Told mostly in flashback however, most of the urgency and tension is drawn off by the first-reel revelation of Nick and Maria meeting again – an illusion of success that’s only later revealed to be only a premature, pyrrhic victory. But while the question of lost innocence and sin looms large over Di Stefano’s film, Benicio del Toro looms even larger – a dark, unpredictable, spider-like presence whose invisible web stretches to murdering high-court judges and politicians, pulling in favours from a corrupt police force, all couched behind a psychopathic coldness that allows him to murder his one-time associates with unruffled, matter-of-fact ease.
Much like its final scene, which returns to the spent hope of the beginning in which Nick and Dylan find paradise on the shores of Colombia, there’s a tragic loss of innocence as Nick becomes embroiled with the Medellín mob. But due to the rather dreary, goody-goody characterisation of the lovelorn couple Nick and Maria, there’s no real spine to this fall from grace – with any self-learning or redemption sacrificed for a tense escape from the Colombian cartel. Caught somewhere between history and fiction, Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar: Paradise Lost nevertheless makes for an interestingly oblique portrait of Pablo Escobar, caring for his family and, like a modern-day Robin Hood, channeling (some of) the proceeds of his cocaine empire into poor communities, health care, housing and sports facilities, while brutally murdering the statesmen and shysters that cross his path. The King of Cocaine now the stuff of legend.
Escobar: Paradise Lost will be released in UK cinemas and available on demand on 21st August. Available on Blu-ray and DVD from 21st September 2015.