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An Oddball Experiment About Colombia’s ‘Cocaine Hippo’

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As with so much, you can blame Pablo Escobar. Following the druglord’s 1993 death, the exotic animals that populated the menagerie at his sprawling Hacienda Nápoles estate faced an uncertain future. Many were sent to zoos, but the hippos remained – although not indigenous to the Americas, they were thriving in Colombia. But then a rogue male nicknamed Pepe escaped into the wilds of the Magdalena river, and even before the hippo-critical hunt-to-kill order came down, became a local legend. This is the wonderfully bizarre story that Dominican filmmaker Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias‘ “Pepe” refuses to tell in anything except the most glancing, freeform, frustratingly obscurantist manner.

Instead, de los Santos Arias sends us on an uncategorizably odd journey down the river of his noodling, needling imagination in a rickety canoe that keeps on capsizing, upended by another sideswiping reference, another jarring change of scene and timeframe  or yet another stretch of borderline incomprehensible narration from Pepe himself, a creature who is as surprised as we are that he has suddenly acquired language. In fact, he’s acquired at least three languages as, punctuated with a snorting, snuffling ho-ho-ho chortle, we hear him speak in Spanish, Afrikaans and a Namibian dialect called Mbukushu. And that’s not even the weirdest thing about the ponderous pachyderm’s voiceover. That would be the fact that he apparently only acquired consciousness and the ability to self-express, at the moment of his death, an event he is aware of and discusses with a kind of abstract puzzlement. “What did I do to be dead?” he booms. 

“Pepe” does eventually get around to telling a story, but not the one you’d think and only after a good hour of dizzyingly fragmentary storytelling will have tried even the most hippo-happy viewer’s patience. We watch TV news reports of Escobar’s killing, and cartoons featuring an anthropomorphized Pepe going on educational adventures. We are sent to Namibia (where Pepe’s parents hailed from) in the 1970s with a busload of gawking German tourists on a safari tour. Over fuzzy black screens we hear the crackle of walkie-talkie comms between the unit sent to kill “the beast.” And we zigzag back and forth to the Rio Magdalena, to vertiginously high overhead drone shots that peer down to where the differently silty currents meet and a pair of hippos bob langorously, semi-submerged. 

The beauty of the cinematography — duties de los Santos Arias shares with Camilo Soratti and Roman Lechapelier — is not quite enough to keep one engaged in the “Pepe” project at its most experimental. But there is one amazing night scene, where the reflection of a huge moon cuts a narrow, silver trail on the top of the black water into which two hippos float serenely, that not only makes you swoon, it also makes you question how on earth such a serendipitous image was even achieved (each of the film’s continent-hopping locations lists a “fiction crew” and a “non-fiction crew” in the credits). The wonder at that major achievement carries through into the film’s most coherent section, which explores the small, rural riverside community that first encounters Pepe. Here again, there are moments where Candelario (Jorge Puntillon Garcia) the gruff fisherman whom Pepe gives fright of his life on his way home one night, will chug out of frame only for a hippo to surface right then, as though on cue.

In this late section, we also get a witty, lived-in snapshot of life in the region. Candelario has a fractious relationship with his wife Betania (Sor Maria Rios) who after 33 years of marriage has had it with his bullshit, of which his story of being menaced on the river by a huge, malevolent unidentifiable animal is, she believes, only the latest example. Betania in turn is a dressmaker who is sewing a beauty pageant outfit for a neighbor. At that event, the girl and her fellow contestants cite the bad roads, inadequate schooling and rural depopulation as the regional ills they want to address, while over in the village bar, Candelario gets drunk with his friends. He heads out onto the water to find Pepe, fast becoming the Moby Dick to his sozzled Captain Ahab.

The straightforwardness of this section — almost as a classical tale of first contact between humans and an alien species — is evidence enough that within “Pepe” there is a shorter yet much more potent vision of the ontological, philosophical, ecological, sociological and borderline mythological questions that the astonishingly strange and sad Pepe story raises. But de los Santos Arias, demonstrating a commitment to the “Baroque. Excessive. Opaque. Heterogeneous” (just some of the words that Pepe mentions knowing and yet not understanding) that would be admirable if it weren’t so intrusive, too often distracts us from the heart of his inventive but chaotic movie. The one that used to beat inside a displaced, distrusted and eventually destroyed hippo, who perhaps did wonder what he was and where he was and, most of all, why he suddenly wasn’t.

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