Plata o Plomo: Pablo Escobar, Magical Realism and Netflix
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The beautiful opening theme song of the Netflix series Narcos, written specially for the show by Brazilian composer Rodrigo Amarante of the band Little Joy, sets the tone for the story we’re about to watch. The lyrics are disturbingly ambiguous, sounding like a deeply romantic tango and a powerful declaration of love while at the same time giving the sense this is just a smoke screen for something much darker. The song might just as well be an anthem for unlimited ambition and hunger for the riches amassed by the Colombian cocaine trade. It could be Pablo Escobar himself singing about sheer greed.
I am the fire that burns your skin, Soy el fuego que arde tu piel,
I am the water that quenches your thirst. Soy el agua que mata tu sed.
The little castle, I am the tower, El castillo, la torre yo soy,
The sword that keeps the flow. La espada que guarda el caudal.
You, the air that I breathe, Tu el aire que respiro yo,
And the light of the moon on the sea. Y la luz de la luna en el mar.
The throat that I long to drench, La garganta que ansio mojar,
Which I fear to drown in love. Que temo ahogar de amor.
And which wishes are you going to grant me? Y cuales deseos me vas a dar?
Ooooohhhhh, tell me, my treasure. Ooooohhhhh, dices tu, mi tesoro.
All it takes is to look at it, Basta con mirarlo,
And it will be yours, it will be yours. Y tuyo será, tuyo será.
Set in the late 80s and early 90s and shot on location in Colombia, the series tells the story of the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the most infamous drug dealer in history and kingpin of the Medellín Cartel. Netflix warns at the beginning of each episode that the real events behind the show have been fictionalized to some extent for dramatization purposes.
Despite his Brazilian accent, actor Wagner Moura, who plays Pablo Escobar, offers a very convincing portrayal of the complex personality of the Colombian gangster. Compared to one of the best-known journalistic accounts of the life of Escobar, Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden, the televised version is much simpler, with fewer characters and a less convoluted plot. In my opinion, the book does a better job of establishing how larger than life the figure of Pablo Escobar really was.
He had an obviously superior intelligence and an idiosyncratic view of the cocaine trafficking. He thought of it as business, claiming that all the respected elite families of Colombia had also been involved in some kind of criminal activity at some point in the past – possibly centuries ago – to achieve their present status. All he wanted was to acquire the same level of respectability, prestige and power. He was just following their example to get to the top, actively and relentlessly exercising his entrepreneurship. His rule and motto of plata o plomo (“bribe or bullet”), applied to meet his business goals, isn't entirely foreign to the laws of the official corporate world, as we know. The same parallel between drug trafficking and condoned business has been previously, and successfully, portrayed in the series Breaking Bad.
Some viewers have criticized the choice of perspective in the series: the story is narrated, in voice-over, by an American DEA agent. They claim that a local angle might have lent the story more original insight into how the drug trade was perceived at the time by Colombians and Latin Americans in general. The American justification for chasing Escobar, whose killing didn’t make a dent in cocaine exports to the US, was that the kingpin was a powerful symbol against everything American: the rule of order, democracy and civilization. He needed to be taken down. He had become too big and rich, too influential, and he had mocked the system for too long.
The first season of the series tells the story up to the point when Escobar forces the Colombian government to build a special prison as one of the conditions for turning himself in. The prison, called “the Cathedral,” was a luxurious castle at the top of a green hill, where he could watch his house and family through a telescope, while peacefully conducting his narco business as usual. We expect that the second season, already completed, will focus on his escape and pursuit, which lasted more than 16 months and involved Colombia and the US, a number of government agencies, thousands of people and millions of dollars.
It’s great that Netflix has decided to draw on the potential of Latin America as a source of stories. The innovative use of local actors, directors and writers is also very welcome. By doing this, Netflix will be tapping into a whole new culture – or rather, cultures, since every Latin American country has its own typical characteristics – to tell stories that will undoubtedly transcend the local context and deal with universal themes.
The association between the story of Pablo Escobar and the literary movement of magical realism made at the beginning of the Netflix series seems fitting. After all, Escobar’s saga is as strange, unreal and dreamlike as the best stories of Gabriel García Márques. We hope that in the same way magical realism took the world by storm in the 60s, this new wave of movies and TV productions centered in Latin America will show the world more of our culture and the huge pool of artistic talent the region has to offer.