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Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias Pepe Review


Pepe | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

Pepe | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

Cocaine Hippo: de Los Santos Arias Explores an Assassination

Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias Pepe ReviewTo say Pepe, the second narrative feature from Dominican director Nelson Carlos de Los Santos Arias, is unclassifiable will likely be as much of a reason to dismiss it as it is a celebratory compliment. Narrated by the deceased titular hippopotamus, one of four such creatures smuggled from Africa to Colombia as part of Pablo Escobar’s nascent personal menagerie, de Los Santos Arias concocts a continually unpredictable visual and narrative journey which continually shifts and splinters perspectives. It is perhaps a much more fittingly nebulous palette for the director, whose intriguing 2017 debut, the similarly fragmented revenge drama Cocote, arguably cannibalized itself as an arthouse genre film. While some familiarity with the murdered hippo, whose disembodied spirit diverges, parallels and intersects quite freely with whatever else is going on, might assist in orienting the audience, but it’s a formidably poetic melange of sentiments and aesthetics more haunting than any more ritualized approach might have wrought.

Pepe, so named by the Colombian press, pipes up with a watery, guttural distortion to inform us he’s deceased following news footage of Pablo Escobar’s death and audio recordings of a mission involving Corporal Gonzalez. Likely a nod to Danilo Gonzalez, part of the Elite Command responsible for Escobar’s first capture by authorities in the early 1990s, it’s also a parallel to the mission de Los Santos Arias eventually reenacts for the killing of Pepe himself. Between these moments, the greater bulk of the film explores the ripple effects of Pepe’s presence on the local populace and the environment, elements which we’re only vaguely led to piece together.

Pepe, along with four female cohorts, were taken from Africa, the first leg of the ‘narrative’ journey. But after the dissolution of Escobar’s zoo, all of the animals he’d collected were relocated to the US…except for the hippos. Left behind in the Magdalena River, the hippos multiplied and began to dominate their new environment, absent their natural African predators. Their threat to the local fishermen, as seen through the drama of a man named Candelario (Jorge Puntillon Garcia), whose unhappy story with his wife Betania (Sor Maria Rios) draws notable focus, results in complaints made to local inspectors and the environmental authorities. Eventually, this leads to governmental action to kill the most problematic hippo, Pepe, whose murder would cause a public outcry, eventually leading to a ban on the remaining hippos, now a beloved but still uncontrollable species in Colombia.

The competing visual textures and narrative strands, including a group of German tourists and a local beauty pageant, not to mention Pepe the Hippo cartoons which make an appearance, all add to a delirious swirl of a film which tends to feel like we’ve entered a fugue state alongside Pepe. Like the ghostly protagonist of Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void (2009), except examining more of the past than the present, de Los Santos Arias also stumbles into the same sort of territory occupied by Jerzy Skolimowski’s doomed donkey EO (2022).

The growling narration of Pepe, however, is where a strange, spooky wisdom unfurls. Initially surprised at his existential situation, where even Pepe is unsure of where his speaking voice comes from (“sound comes out one way, sometimes another way”), his awareness progresses with the film, as one of those “beings dying not knowing where they really were.” If Pepe still isn’t ultimately sure how we got to this place, it seems at last “Everything is clear in the end, but explains nothing.” If there’s any way to rightly convey the essence of what de Los Santo Arias has conjured, Pepe plays like a version of Dumbo as directed by Miguel Gomes. By the time the end credits hit, the director unveils the film to be Part I, suggesting Pepe and his kinfolk might have more to say.

Reviewed on February 20th at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival – Main Competition section. 122 mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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