Back when European film production had a neat line in no-frills exploitation movies to ride the topical wave of an issue of the moment, a project like Escobar - Paradise Lost would be custom-tailored for that market of neighborhood theatres: a sensationalist, fanciful thriller built on a ripped-from-the-headlines theme and with a true-crime figure. Italian actor Andrea di Stefano's feature directing debut is clearly a fiction, positing a young Canadian surfer's (Josh Hutcherson) unwitting entry into the extended family of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro), through a casual meet-cute and follow-up lightning-fast romance with his niece María (Claudia Traisac).
It's nice to see Mr. di Stefano and his veteran co-screenwriter Francesca Marciano actually take the story seriously enough instead of playing up the tongue-in-cheek aspect, to try and create a plausible framework within a genre structure - yes, it's narratively signposted and hackneyed, though not much more than a Hollywood film on the same topic would be. But what makes it stand out is its openly operatic, high-strung melodramatic feel, underlined by Max Richter's slyly Morricone-like score and by the script's refusal to tie up its loose ends with a happy ending.
Of course, since the Escobar Mr. di Stefano creates is a drug lord-as-rock star character, Mr. del Toro plays him as a larger-than-life, magnetic, whimsical personality, simultaneously playing God and mindful of God; the actor may be slumming it, but he slums it in a gloriously over-the-top fashion, while gradually injecting heft and darkness in a cartoon menace that becomes more scary as the film moves forward. Still, this is pretty much a game of two halves: the first hour is a dreamy, potentially naïve romance and the second a tense spaghetti-thriller, resulting in a somewhat schizophrenic piece whose tone veers all over the place and has a curious overlay of guilty pleasure all over it.
ESCOBAR - PARADISE LOST
France, Spain, Belgium 2014
Cast Benicio del Toro, Josh Hutcherson, Claudia Traisac, Brady Corbet, Carlos Bardem, Ana Girardot, Micke Moreno
Director Andrea di Stefano; screenwriters Mr. di Stefano and Francesca Marciano; cinematographer Luis Sansans (colour, widescreen); composer Max Richter; designer Carlos Conti; costumes Marylin Fitoussi; editors David Brenner and Maryline Monthieux; producer Dimitri Rassam; production companies Chapter 2, Orange Studio, Pathé Production, Roxbury Pictures, Paradise Lost Film, Nexus Factory and Jouror Développement in co-production with Umedia
Screened February 19th 2015, Lisbon