Berlinale 2024 review: Pepe (Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias)

Pepe is a technical marvel first and foremost.”

In what is certain to be one of the wildest entries in this year’s Berlinale competition, not only in execution but also in its subject matter, Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias’ Pepe tells a fictionalized version of the true life story of an African hippopotamus whose forefathers travelled to Colombia to become the pets of an infamous drug lord. Seen through the eyes of the hulking but dangerous animal at first, Pepe loses steam once it shifts to the domestic problems of a fisherman on the Magdalena River, Colombia’s principal river that our hippo protagonist has chosen as his new habitat after being forced from the herd. Most notable for the incredible nature of its story and for its fine camera and sound work, the hybrid film is enjoyable but overlong, and a prime example of a film that screams for post-viewing research.

In 1980, notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar had started to assemble a private zoo on his Hacienda Nápoles estate. From giraffes to kangaroos to rhinos, they all found their way to the Colombian jungle. Among the exotic species were also four hippopotamuses from Botswana’s Okavango Delta, who were to populate the artificial lakes surrounding the hacienda. And populate they did. Long after Escobar’s 1993 death, and with most of the other animals either dead or transferred to zoos across the globe, the hippos are still there, flourishing in a habitat that is rich with food and devoid of natural enemies. At the time of writing the size of the herd has grown to 170 animals, and the Colombian authorities are trying to carry out a plan to sterilize the males before the population grows out of hand. One of the offspring of the original gang of four was Pepe. Past tense, because the renegade hippo who had left the herd together with a mate and had started to produce offspring of his own, was shot in 2009 because the trio had left the grounds of the hacienda, which in the meantime had been turned in part into a theme park.

And there Pepe’s story in De Los Santos Arias’ film begins: at his death. The hippo finds a voice, strange as it is to him. “Am I making that sound?“, he muses in a deep voice, in no less than three languages (besides Spanish and Afrikaans, Pepe has also mastered the language of the Okavango Delta; anything is possible in the transcendental plane of death). He first narrates the story of his forefathers and how they were brought to this strange, faraway country. We see them being snatched up from the river, stuffed in crates on a ‘river without banks’, and driven by scared-to-death handlers to their final destination. We hear how they flourished, growing the herd until at some point Pepe himself is born. The unlikely protagonist then begins to tells his own life story, about being expelled from the herd after a fight with the group’s dominating male.

It is at this point that the focus of the film shifts from Pepe to a local fisherman on the Magdalena River, Candelario (Jorge Puntillón García), and his wife of 33 years Betania (Sor María Ríos). Through them we get a glimpse of day-to-day life in the jungle hinterlands of Colombia, although the main thread of the second half of the film centres around Candelario and his encounters with Pepe. Betania, suspecting her husband of sleeping around, thinks he uses his wild story about a huge monster of an animal to cover up his extramarital affairs, and the local authorities refuse to take his concern about the dangers the animal poses to the local fishermen seriously.

The problem is that by shifting the focus away from Pepe, the film becomes more of a conventional story about small community life mixed with domestic drama between the two human characters, thereby relegating the hippo to a supporting character in his own story. The film settles into familiar arthouse beats, eschewing the wild concoction of horror, drama, and sinister nature documentary that came before. Once the film turns its focus back on Pepe in the final moments, as he is hunted down and killed, his soul and his voice leaving his body in a tremendous drone shot, it is clear that the film could have done without Candelario’s involvement and should have told this part through the eyes of the hippo as well. Having become somewhat of a local celebrity (he even lends his name to the hippo protagonist in a localized version of an American cartoon series), this was prime material to be mined by Pepe himself.

What remains of this uneven exploration of a crazy footnote in Colombian history is the film’s gorgeous cinematography by De Los Santos Arias himself in conjunction with Camilo Soratti and Roman Lechapelier. Mixing different film stock with digital work, applying era-appropriate filtering and colour work to the various segments of Pepe’s story, and delivering at times jaw-dropping compositional work, Pepe is a feast for the eyes. The ears get a treatment as well, as Nahuel Palenque’s sound work, again in cooperation with De Los Santos Arias, vividly brings to life the Colombian jungle and its riverbeds, as well as the various environments that come before the first hippos reach Hacienda Nápoles. Combined with, again, De Los Santos Arias’ eclectic musical choices, which range from traditional music to ambient techno, Pepe is a technical marvel first and foremost. Its storytelling is more uneven, with the first hour taking a highly original approach (even if at times disorienting), but the latter half taking a more conventional route and consequently becoming less captivating. Still, a film about the only hippopotamus to be shot and killed outside of Africa was always destined to become an unusual affair, and for this highly original film to land in Competition is a feat of its own.

Image copyright: Monte & Culebra