(director/writer: Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias; cinematographer: Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias; editor: Tom Swash; music: Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias; cast: Jhon Narvaez (Pepe), Fareed Matjila (Pepe), Nicolas Marin Caly (Angel), Harmony Ahalwa (Pepe), Sor María Ríos (Betania), Jorge Puntillón García (Candelario), Shifafure Faustinus (Pepe), Steven Alexander (Cocorico); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias, Tanya Valette, Pablo Lozano; 4 a 4 productions; 2024-B/W and color, in the Dominican Republic/France/Nambia/Germany-in Spanish, Afrikaanns and German, with English subtitles)

“Too obtuse for me.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Dominican filmmaker Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias (“Cocote”) in his second feature tells this bizarre but unique story in an obscure way.

Pepe is one of four hippopotamuses named Pepe smuggled in from sub-Saharan Africa to Colombia by the “Cocaine King” Pablo Escobar, where they thrived on his vast estate. The drug lord was killed in a shootout with the law in 1993 and left a menagerie, with most animals going to zoos. Eventually in the tropical woods on his estate there were over a 100 hippos and the government dubbed them the “cocaine hippos.”

The hippos named Pepe escape capture and one of them tells us in his own words their tragic story, that covers colonialism, conservation, and the “drug war.”

It’s grunted out as a haunting story–a tone poem, or perhaps an arty riddle that wants us to digest some troubling history through the lens of the now dead star hippo.

The Pepes got their name from the media.

The beautifully photographed film blends realism and fiction into a narrative with numerous episodes, as it unravels into a sometimes tantalizing mess about being free or in captivity. But it was too obtuse for me, even if intentionally filmed this way it was still distracting.

It played at the Berlin Film Festival.