In 2009, Virginia Vallejo was a columnist for the Venezuelan opposition newspaper 6to Poder, before Hugo Chavez had it shuttered and threw her boss in prison. It is an important story, but it will have to wait for a different movie. This one focuses solely on her affair with notorious cartel boss Pablo Escobar and his fall from power. Unfortunately, Vallejo is nearly dragged down with him in Fernando León de Aranoa’s Loving Pablo (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
This film is adapted from Vallejo’s memoir Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar, so even though the story is credited to documentarians Jeff & Michael Zimbalist (who made The Two Escobars), the film never really asks the obvious question: “what the Hell was Vallejo thinking?” We see her falling for Escobar’s Lord Bountiful act in the Medellin slums and then suddenly she is the drug lord’s mistress and also an advisor to his successful congressional campaign. Seriously, what happened to journalistic distance? Of course, it will not be long before Vallejo rues the day she met Escobar.
According to the film’s account, Vallejo was already a celebrity “journalist” when Escobar paid her (and several others) to lend star power to one of his many lavish parties. Generally, those with high social standing were happy to accept his hospitality, but they never mingled with their “nouveau riche” hosts. That was a euphemism for drug dealers. Vallejo would be an exception. Escobar started his charm offensive at the party, but he sealed the deal when Vallejo produced a story about his supposed philanthropic projects.
Despite the double-speak, Vallejo knew well enough just exactly what Escobar was. In fact, she was present as arm candy at several milestone meetings of the allied cartels (Medellin, Cali, etc.). For a while, she manages to keep kidding herself, but when Escobar’s political opponents are gunned down in broad daylight, she finally snaps out of her denial. As the heat turns up on Escobar, she also starts receiving threatening phone calls from the friends and family of his victims.
Granted, Loving Pablo can get a little cheesy at times. Vallejo does not actually accuse Escobar of stealing her youth, but a line like that would not sound out of place in this film. Nevertheless, it offers a somewhat unusual vantage point on the gangster-rise-and-fall narrative, from the perspective of the disillusioned mistress and media consultant.
You also have to give Javier Bardem credit for all the De Niro pounds he packed on to play Escobar. He looks so bad, viewers will fear for his health. In contrast, Penélope Cruz looks fabulous as Vallejo. When you see them together in Loving Pablo, it is dashed hard to believe they are still married in real life. In terms of actual acting, Bardem growls and chews the scenery with abandon, but his portrayal pales compared to heavy, career defining work in Biutiful and To the Wonder. Arguably, Cruz fares better doubling-down on glamour and old school oh-if-I-had-but-known melodramatic chops as Vallejo. Peter Sarsgaard also helps keep things lively as the corner-cutting but still somewhat principled DEA agent, Shepard.