Pepe: Pablo Escobar’s philosophical hippo takes viewers on a radically inventive journey

Nelson Carlos de los Santos Arias muses on questions of power, language and the afterlife from the perspective of an intrepid hippo in a hallucinatory docudrama that defies the expected rules of legibility.

Pepe (2024)
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival

Pepe, from director Nelson Carlos de los Santos Arias, brings to mind a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon on the theme, ‘If dogs could talk’. It shows a crowd of dogs, each equipped with its own word balloon, each one reading, “HEY!”. The hippopotamus in Pepe is a more sophisticated speaker. Early on, it tries out the sounds “Aaah… ehhh… ohhhh…”, followed by guttural booms and rumbles. But, voiced by four different actors, it also speaks in three languages – Afrikaans, Spanish and the Namibian tongue Mbukushu – all in an electronically treated basso with oddly affable inflections, like Stephen Fry speaking underwater.

Intermittently, the hippo muses on its history and its relation to language and the race of the Two-Legged, with which it has become inextricably involved. Speaking from an afterlife, having been shot dead in Colombia, the creature is descended from the hippos transported across the Atlantic for the private zoo of drug baron Pablo Escobar. ‘Pepe’ now lingers on questions of power, exile and the very strangeness of being able to speak: “How do I know these words? How do I know what a word is?”

Pepe (2024)

Pepe uses similar devices – and raises similar questions – to 2024’s Golden Bear winner, Mati Diop’s documentary Dahomey, about the repatriation to Benin of a collection of looted artefacts. Pepe tells a similar story, about theft from Africa and imprisonment in a distant land, with non-human protagonists evoking clear parallels with slavery. Diop’s film too is voiced by an ‘impossible narrator’, the statue of a king, and like Pepe, uses electronic processing to emphasise the irreducible otherness of its voice.

What is striking about Pepe, beyond the outré premise itself, is its challenging, utterly distinctive style. De los Santos Arias won the Best Director award at Berlinale, and while Pepe may not have been the competition’s best directed film in conventional terms, it could certainly lay claim to being the most directed, the work most assertively defined by a radically inventive filmic language.

As in his 2017 film Cocote, de los Santos essentially tells a chronological story, but disrupts the flow with digressions and shifts of style and medium. Pepe begins with a brief, disorienting prelude evoking the death of Escobar in Medellín in 1993: we see soldiers’ faces flickering in darkness and lights intensifying to the sound of gunfire and the director’s own pulsing electronic score. We also hear military radio communications, which recur intermittently throughout. Then a caption tells us that we are in Southwest Africa: there, a German guide tells a bus full of tourists about local hippo lore, much to their amusement and the palpable discomfort of his resident Namibian expert, whom he treats with contempt.

After a sequence showing the captured hippo’s long voyage, the action shifts to Colombia’s River Magdalena, where cantankerous elderly fisherman Candelario (Jorge Puntillón García) carps at his wife Betania (Sor María Ríos), and narrates a hair-raising hippo encounter to anyone who will listen. A local beauty pageant provides a lengthy digression, seemingly irrelevant except for the fact that it is rooted in the local culture, and fascinates de los Santos enough to put it on screen.

Pepe (2024)

Adding to the film’s fragmentary, staccato texture are the intermittent use of a black or nearly black screen, and shifts from colour to black-and-white: in the latter, night vision shots, a hallucinatory vista of sand dunes, footage of tourists at the adventure park built on the site of Escobar’s Hacienda Napolés estate.

And throughout, there are the hippos. They are seen from far above in vertically shot drone images, or nearby, half-immersed in water, with birds riding their backs. If we think the film’s talking beast is being anthropomorphised, that treatment is offset by its own parodic version – clips of a Hanna-Barbera style children’s TV cartoon, about a humanised hippo.

Shot in Colombia and Namibia, Pepe shows how flamboyant a film can be in its production and techniques, yet still make minimal compromises with expected rules of legibility. Pepe had more going on imaginatively and stylistically than most films in the Berlin competition; but whether it ‘works’ may not be entirely legitimate a question for a film that so defiantly insists on working differently. At one point, referring to his parents’s transatlantic passage, Pepe calls the ocean “a river whose bottom we can never reach”. Pepe’s own river of imagery may be frustratingly murky at points, but reaching its bottom is a whole other tantalising matter.