La Viuda Negra vs. Griselda Blanco: Telenovela vs. real-life

The young Griselda Blanco: real (left) and telenovela versions.

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“Art VAGUELY imitating life.”

It’s probably safe to say La Viuda Negra is “inspired” by the story of Griselda Blanco, rather than anything more. But there are aspects of the telenovela which are surprisingly accurate, especially in the early stages, before things begin diverging for dramatic purposes. [Note: of necessity, what follows will include major spoilers for the TV series] For example, Griselda did move to the city of Medellin with her mother at an early age, not long after the end of World War 2, and it does appear she was involved in criminal activities there, before even becoming a teenager in the mid-fifties. 

A focus of the early episodes sees Blanco joining a gang, which then kidnaps the scion of a rich local family. In the telenovela, this kick-starts her career, because the victim dies, and his father vows vengeance on Griselda, forcing her to go on the run as a young adult. The reality is perhaps even more astonishing, with her former lover, Charles Cosby, reporting that the kidnap and murder took place when Blanco was only eleven years old. After the boy’s parents refused to pay up, the frustrated gang gave her a revolver and challenged her to shoot him in the head. Challenge accepted…

It was around this time she also met her first husband, Carlos Trujillo. In real life, he was involved in forging immigration documents; she had three children with him, all of whom would become involved in the drug trade, and suffer violent ends. The same happened to Trujillo, whom Griselda had killed, shortly after they divorced at the end of the sixties. In La Viuda Negra, her first husband, Puntilla, is part of the kidnapping gang, who goes on the run with Griselda, and is killed by him in Episode 6, after betraying her. [This is kind of a theme through the TV series; if Ms. Blanco has serious trust issues as a result, it’s understandable!]

It’s with her second husband that her career as a drug queen really started to take off, both in reality and fiction – though the latter has Robayo operating over the border in Ecuador, where Griselda (Serradilla) takes refuge. They establish a pipeline to move their product from South America to the United States, using attractive women as mules. The TV version has her having high-heeled shoes built, with hidden compartments to hide the drugs. That seemed a very inefficient approach to me: really, how much could one person carry? The reality made more sense: Blanco actually developed and used specially-made corsets and other lingerie, capable of holding up to seven pounds of cocaine per person. Even in those days, that was worth about a million dollars.

In the TV series, there’s a diversion after they’re established in New York, as Italian Mafia kingpin, Enzo Vittoria, falls in love with Griselda, and abducts her for reasons of affection, despite her having previously shot and wounded him. Never one to leave a job unfinished, she shoots him again, on their enforced wedding day (Episode 19), and this time completes the job. [Should that count as another murdered husband? They technically weren’t married…] However, she gradually grows estranged from Robayo, not least over the upbringing of their son, Michael Corleone Blanco – yes, he was named that in real life too! – and kills him in Episode 26, just before being arrested by long-running DEA adversary, Norm Jones (Gamboa), after having relocated to Miami.

The truth is somewhat different. Vittoria appears pure invention, although DEA agent Bob Palumbo did spend more than a decade on the trail of Blanco. There was indeed a falling out between her and second husband, Alberto Bravo, ending in her killing him. However, this took place back in Colombia. She and her top killers, Humberto Quirana and Jorge ‘Rivi’ Ayala, went to meet Bravo in a parking lot; the resulting gun-battle left Bravo and six bodyguards dead, and Blanco wounded. Later in the seventies, she returned to Florida, rising to the top in a brutal reign of terror, culminating in an infamous double homicide at Dadeland Mall. Her network brought in as much as $80 million a month, but Palombo eventually got his woman in 1985.

So, jail on both sides. But this is where the stories really start to diverge. In reality, she served 13 years in New York for cocaine smuggling, then was shipped to Florida where worse trouble awaited. For hitman ‘Rivi’ had turned stool-pigeon, and with his testimony linking her to literally dozens of murders, the death penalty loomed large. However, his testimony was largely discredited after a bizarre scandal in which he was shown to have paid secretaries at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office for phone sex. In the end, prosecutors had to settle for lesser charges; Blanco got 20 years, and was released after only seven, returning to Colombia at the end of her sentence in 2004. The day she left, ‘Rivi’ was stabbed eight times in Dade County jail.

The TV series compacts the nineteen years Blanco really spent behind bars, in two separate sentences, into one period in New York alone. These 18 episodes add additional, entirely spurious aspects such as Griselda being forced to engage in cage fights (!) with other inmates, or her being attacked by guards, and getting revenge by setting them on fire. There are a couple of aspects one might call ‘somewhat true’. There was a plan hatched to kidnap the son of John F. Kennedy and exchange him for Blanco, though it never came as close to success as depicted in the telenovela. And while it is true that a man struck up a relationship by writing to her while she was inside, Charles Cosby was not the undercover DEA agent, portrayed as “Tyler” in the TV version.

Certainly, there’s major dramatic license in Blanco’s departure from prison. Rather than just reaching the end of her sentence, there’s a dramatic escape from literally being in the electric chair [which is odd, since no-one has been executed in New York state since 1963, and no woman since Martha Jule Beck in 1951]. Using a drug which gives the impression of death, allows her gang to break her out by ambulance (Episode 44). From there she returns to Colombia, and only at this point, does Blanco cross paths with the most notorious drug-lord of them all, Pablo Escovar. However, it appears they knew each other far longer. Some sources say they were childhood friends, others that he was Griselda’s “great apprentice,” and there are even salacious whispers they were lovers.

So any connection to fact in the show has now evaporated entirely. By this point, the real Griselda Blanco was in her sixties, and suffering badly from the effects of her life of excess – according to reports, “Court records show Blanco was a drug addict who consumed vast quantities of ‘bazooka,’ a potent form of smokeable, unrefined cocaine… would force men and women to have sex at gunpoint, and had frequent bisexual orgies.” After her release, she apparently lived quietly in Medellin. But it wasn’t enough to save her from a violent end. In September 2012, she was killed outside a butcher’s shop – ironically, in a motorcycle drive-by, the style of assassination she had pioneered and which became one of her trademarks.

This is as good a place as any, to mention the remarkably straight-edge depiction of Blanco in the telenovela. Unlike the sex- and drug-fiend described above, teleGriselda never gets high on her own supply, and is strictly monogamous – when anyone can get past her trust issues, that is. That’s something which I also noticed about La Reina Del Sur and the Mexican TV version was radically different from the American one, where the heroine was not averse to powdering her nose now and again. It’s an odd version of morality, considering how there’s apparently no problem with her being directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of dozens of people. “Yeah, but they were all bad,” to borrow a line from True Lies.

In the television version, however, she returns to business back on home turf. But there’s a problem, in the shape of Otalvaro. He’s another Colombian drug-runner, who holds a grudge against Blanco because she ordered the execution of his niece in her New York days – albeit for business rather than personal reasons. He teams up with Susana, another character apparently created for the show. She’s a Florida real-estate agent, who becomes part of Griselda’s crew, and is also a lesbian who has a long-time secret affection for her. When her hopes are crushed, she turns bitter, joining forces with Otalvaro, and tangentially, Escobar. Otalvaro’s daughter, Karla, meanwhile, goes the other way, falling for Michael Blanco after Otalvaro kidnaps him; she helps him escape and becomes part of Griselda’s crew.

In truth, these later episodes are less interesting, largely because the focus is so diluted – it gets away from Griselda, rather than focusing on her, as it should since she’s the most interesting character. I haven’t even mentioned Silvio, who betrays Griselda and tries to steal a submarine (!) packed with cocaine. He then gets miffed after she orders the death of his girlfriend, and begins his own, independent plot to take revenge on the family. Also still rattling around Medellin in the later stages is Jones, the series’s version of Bob Palumbo. He isn’t just chasing after her, he also ends up falling in love and prepared to do anything for her. Throw in his son and a renegade colleague, Garcia, prepared to go to any lengths to capture Griselda, and you’ll understand why it feels the writers are going for volume over quality in their storyline elements by the end.

But it’s at the end the story diverts furthest from reality. Instead of having Griselda gunned down in the street by an unknown adversary, she and her longest lasting and most faithful ally, Richi (Román), are trapped in a cold-storage room. Rather than surrender, or be captured by their enemies, legal or otherwise, they agree to a mutual suicide pact. The screen goes black, we hear the sound of gunfire, and the series ends. But mere mortality is no match for the demands of audience ratings. And so, two years later, the show began its second season, with a further 63 episodes detailing the further adventures of Griselda Blanco. The fictional version of the character appears to be even harder to kill than her real-life inspiration.

We’ll get round to watching that series in a bit, but after this 81-part marathon, I’m inclined to take a bit of a break! It wasn’t a bad show, and never became a chore: Serradilla is solid in the central role, and I also enjoyed Gamboa’s performance. But as noted, it did appear to lose focus as it went on, and did appear to be over-stretching its material. However, it will provide a useful template, against which other adaptations can be measured. For there are at least two competing Hollywood projects in various stages of production: one starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and the other, Jennifer Lopez. As and when those arrive on our screen, we can see how they compare to the extended version, offered by this telenovela.

Star: Ana Serradilla, Juan Pablo Gamboa, Julián Román, Ramiro Meneses

The Frontier

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“A cash and grab story.”

Laine (Donahue) is on the run. From what isn’t immediately clear, but it seems to be something to do with the death of an oil executive. Whatever the reason, she’s staying off the highways and keeping to the back roads. One morning, she wakes up beside The Frontier, a diner/motel owned and operated by Luanne (Lynch), who offers Laine employment, in return for board and lodging. Laine initially rejects the offer, then discovers some other guests are apparently there in the aftermath of an armoured car robbery, which netted them two million dollars. Laine therefore decides it’s in her best interests to stick around, and begins a game of chess with the perpetrators, to see if she can end up walking away with their ill-gotten gains.

Opening in a shot of Laine, lighting a cigarette with her blood-stained hands, the story then unfolds in flashback. The style seems deliberately vague in terms of era; some aspects of this seem right out of the seventies, while others appear to be throwbacks to an earlier, film noir approach. There are definitely elements of David Lynch here – not just in the original title, Thieves’ Highway, also from the dialogue and a sense of lurking evil beneath a thin surface layer of everyday normality. Maybe The Hateful 8, with a group of players of uncertain agenda, forced to interact? You could even claim some Lars Von Trier here, in the way that the movie almost entirely takes place in a single location, often feeling like an adaptation of a play – perhaps one where the buildings are defined entirely by chalk lines, drawn on the stage.

Unfortunately, most of this fails to be as interesting as the sources it’s trying to imitate. The script makes the mistake of thinking that a sheer quantity of duplicity and double-crosses, will somehow make up for there being no particular reason to give a damn about most of the characters. Their obvious lack of honesty, everyone holding the cards close to their chest, makes it hard for the audience to get on board with any of them – particularly Laine, who is clearly intended to be the audience’s focus. Though Donahue, overall, isn’t bad in the role. She delivers an interesting mix of steely determination and street wit that, if not likeable, is always watchable, offering an acceptable twist on the typical femme fatale.

The rest of the cast feel more like standard tropes from that genre: the gruff, brutish thug; the ditzy moll; the fake “gentleman”, and so on, things you’ve likely seen far too often before, and neither the script nor their portrayals do enough to make them come alive. Things meander along to the entirely expected, bloody conclusion promised by that opening shot, and it feels longer instead of shorter than its relatively brisk 88 minute running-time. While there’s some promise here, and signs of talent, it would be a large stretch to say either are fulfilled.

Dir: Oren Shai
Star: Jocelin Donahue, Kelly Lynch, Jim Beaver, Izabella Miko

Body

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“Bah, humbug.”

It’s the festive season, and Holly (Rogers), Cali (Turshen), and Mel (Molina) are bored. At the suggestion of Cali, they head over to her uncle’s fabulous mansion – conveniently, he’s out of town for the holidays – for a little par-tay. Except, it’s not actually her uncle’s house. Worse is to follow, ending with the caretaker (Fessenden) lying, apparently dead, at the foot of the stairs. The three young ladies are left having to decide whether to ‘fess up and face the consequences, or cover up and create an alternative version of events.

According to Wikipedia, the three characters “represent Sigmund Freud’s model of the id, ego, and superego.” I guess that’s something you don’t see every day. Certainly, they’re radically different characters, to the extent you wonder somewhat, quite why they’re hanging out with each other. Cali is prepared to go to absolutely any lengths, to avoid responsibility. Holly is at the other end of the spectrum, convinced they are only making things worse for themselves by committing further crimes. Mel is the undecided voter, and it’s her shifting support which largely drives the second half, as Cali and Holly solicit her support. Who knew teenagers were such sticklers for the democratic process?

bodyIt kinda works, mostly for the dynamics between the trio of leading ladies. At first, Cali’s approach seems sensible, arguably a legitimate way to make the best of a bad situation. However, a change in the scenario shifts things seismically, and even the toughest of her supporters would have to admit an unpleasant streak of psychopathy is opened in her make-up. Evil sometimes wears a pretty face, and Turshen reminded me more than a little of Denise Richards in Wild Things – manipulative and . Less successful, to the point of entire irrelevance, is the boyfriend who shows up and yells for a bit. I suspect, given the slight running time of 75 minutes, his presence may have been a late-added necessity in order to reach feature length.

However, if the ending is probably when the film is most fun, it’s also where the script seems to be weakest. The eventual conclusion would likely not withstand scrutiny, by anyone with even a passing knowledge of forensic investigative techniques. In the film’s defense, that might be the point. Though given one of the girls is supposedly looking to attend law school, her pre-legal knowledge inexplicably appears about the level obtained from a few episodes of C.S.I. On the other hand, Berk and Olsen have done a fairly good job of crafting a story that fits within their resource limitations,

Dir: Dan Berk and Robert Olsen
Star: Helen Rogers, Alexandra Turshen, Lauren Molina, Larry Fessenden

Maggie Marvel

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“Juggling family and career can be murder.”

maggiemarvelMaggie Marvel (Beretta) is a single mom, with all the issues that implies. She has to try and juggle work with raising young daughter, Samantha (Katherine Brennan), on her own. But complicating matters enormously, is that work in this case is operating as an assassin for criminal kingpin Dutch – who also happens to be Maggie’s estranged father, who sent her away after his wife (and thus, Maggie’s mother) tried to poison him. Maggie was raised instead by Dixie Brown (Barron), who also works for Dutch as a killer. For he believes women are better at the job, and though he employs men, such as Bobby Shea (Dan Brennan) and his brothers, they are kept for non-lethal work. However, this line gets blurred as Bobby has fallen for Dixie, and his request that Maggie work with him on a bank robbery – hoping to make Dixie jealous – kicks off a series of events that threaten to destroy Maggie, her family and the entire crime organization.

It’s a good concept, and is helped enormously by Beretta, who was even more awesome in Hell Fire, even if her Australian accent requires some particularly convoluted explanations. Indeed, the story-line here in general is sometimes insanely complex, which explains why this runs 108 minutes: in some ways, I suspect less plot might well have been more successful here. Could certainly have done with less of the aspects which, particularly in the early going, occasionally make this feel like it’s a fetish tape for glove enthusiasts… Instead, writer-director-costar Brennan (who cast two of his own daughters in this, as well as it being produced by his wife Jean, keeping it a family affair) could perhaps have expanded on the single mother aspects, Maggie using her skills to deal with bitchy PTA rivals, recalcitrant teachers, etc., in a way similar to Serial Mom.

However, there are still a number of positives, not just Beretta. Most of the performances are solid, and the technical aspects are better than I was expecting – it’s often indistinguishable from a “real” movie. The comedic aspects work particularly well, in particular those surrounding the bank job. It involves both a vault which can only be opened by tap-dancing the combination, and also the impersonation of a German princess by someone who is neither a princess, nor can speak German. This kind of dry wit is endearing, and plays into the strengths of Beretta and the rest of the cast. The action is plentiful, though appears mostly constructed in the editing room rather than out of the participants’ obvious skills. It’s something of a shame the movie doesn’t build to the expected face-off between Maggie and Dixie, instead diverting into one of the subplots, this one involving an actress hired to play the part of Maggie, because… Well. I’m sure there was an explanation somewhere. Like much of the film, probably best not to sweat such details, instead just appreciating a strong lead and the quirky independence here.

Dir: Dan Brennan
Star: Selene Beretta, Dan Brennan, Katherine Barron, Dianna Brennan

Sorrow

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“Coherence. It’s vastly over-rated.”

sorrowEven given my tolerance for small budget and independent films, this was a chore both times I watched it. The first time, I got half-way through and gave up. Returning the next day, I decided to give it another chance, and started from the beginning again. While I did make it all the way to the end on the second occasion, this is one of those cases where I reached the end, and was actively irritated by the fact I could have spent the time doing any number of more interesting, productive or fun things.

It starts with the aftermath of a shoot-out at a house, which leaves the cops picking over multiple dead bodies – including one of their own, killed by a booby-trap – and the sole living witness, Mila Sweeney (Vasquez) in hospital with a shoulder wound. She absconds from there, because in one of the inexplicable pieces of plotting, the cops don’t bother to keep an eye on her there, and it’s up to Detective Ana Salinas (Mars) to try and reel Mila back in. Alongside this, we get a series of flashbacks (except, you have to figure out what’s a flashback and what’s current, entirely on your own), depicting events leading up to the shoot-out, which saw Mila have the misfortune to knock on the door of a house occupied by a nomadic trio of psychopaths, Dale (Martinez), Hersey (Etuk) and Gambit, who welcome the delivery of fresh meat.

The rest of the film judders back and forth between the heroine’s efforts to escape her captivity, and her post-shootout quest for vengeance, yet also wobbles between portraying this from Mila’s perspective and those of the perpetrators. It’s as if the script – also written by director Loredo – couldn’t figure out what angle or approach to take, and ended up going for a half-assed attempt to cover them all. This is one of the reasons why hard experience has shown me that it’s a warning sign when any low-budget film is written by the same person directing it. This approach largely removes the opportunity for an outsider  to look at the script with a critical eye and go, “Hang on. That won’t work.”

You can see what Loredo is going for, and I can’t deny the obvious passion here. It’s just a shame that there is virtually nothing else good enough to retain your attention. In particular, occasionally good performances are wasted because the script is horrible at its most important and basic job: telling a coherent story. The viewer is left thrashing around trying to put together the pieces, and while not impossible, this is a task where the director needs to be someone more like David Lynch, rather than a rookie trying her hand at directing a feature for the first time, especially one who appears to this she is Quentin Tarantino.

Dir: Millie Loredo
Star: Vannessa Vasquez, Melissa Mars, Eric Martinez, Mary Etuk

Grand Auto Theft: L.A.

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“Leaves you yearning for the high quality of Asylum mockbusters.”

grandautotheftVixen (Zachary) and her girl pals Sarita (Almonte), Kandy (Kodding), Electra and Katie are ambitious young dope-dealers on the streets of Los Angeles. After discovering that someone is pushing lethal drugs, Vixen’s moral streak kicks in, and she cuts off the head of the snake responsible, Kane. Unfortunately, this opens the door for the even more dangerous Andre, who is completely insane and willing to stop at nothing to prevent Vixen and her gang from interfering with him. After he kidnaps, rapes and kills one of her crew, it’s clear this war won’t end until one of them is dead. Then there’s “The Shadow,” a mysterious and unknown figure, lurking behind Andre.

This is clearly designed to look like a Grand Theft Auto film, complete with animated cut scenes. I’m somewhat surprised there wasn’t a cease-and-desist from Rockstar Games. However, the execution is so painfully poor and unconvincing, viewers would likely be more entertained if the makers had video-taped someone playing the game for 85 minutes and released that instead. Virtually no-one here is at all convincing in their roles as dangerous gangsters: Kodding, in particular, appears to be visiting the mean streets of Los Angeles on day-release from a Beverly Hills spa, and Dolinar resembles Neil Patrick Harris trying to play a thug. Both are as ineffective as that would suggest. Almonte did manage to sell her character in one monologue; otherwise, the best actor here is porn star Ron Jeremy. He gets his penis yanked off after it’s caught in a car door.

I’ve enjoyed some of Leroy’s low-budget work in the past; Hell’s Highway hit the spot, and The Witch’s Sabbath had the awesome line, “Where y’going? You crazy-ass witch with titties.” Those both managed to, if not conceal their limited resources, at least make them relatively unimportant to the entertainment provided. Here, there’s just not enough effort invested. While the film is hyper-violent in the same way as GTA, it’s all digital effects – which might be the point, I suppose, yet feels more like a choice made to save money than out of any stylistic consideration. It seems rather ambivalent towards its female characters as well, wanting to depict them as strong and independent, yet also degrade them with sexual violence. On the other hand, anyone watching B-movies for a moral education is in about as much trouble as anyone who plays video games for that reason.

I look forward (for some very loose definition of “look forward”) to seeing whether Leroy continues down this road. Perhaps we may soon be seeing Alive or Dead, Evil Resident or, perhaps, Raider of Tombs? I’m not sure which is sadder: the possibility of those, or the fact I’d almost certainly end up watching them…

Dir: Jeff Leroy
Star: Mahogany Zachary, Alexis Kodding, Tim Dolinar, Jessica Almonte

Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler

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“Goddess of gamblers.”

wgb2Nami (Kaji) – or, to give her character’s full name here, Nami the Crimson Cherry Blossom – is still the same ice-cold, vengeful warrior as before. Though for this sequel, for some reason, she has switched to rather more traditional attire, in the shape of a kimono. She encounters Hanae, trying to escape a Yakuza sex-trafficking gang, to whom she has been sold by her father(!). Nami rescues her, subsequently wins Hanae’s freedom in a card game, and returns her to Dad. Turns out he can shed some light on Hoshiden, the man who killed Nami’s own father in a gambling spat, years earlier, and for whom she has been searching ever since. To find her target, Nami needs to embed herself deep in the murky, Ginza world of gambling and prostitution, helped by former friend Miyoko (Kagawa), now part of Hoshiden’s organization, and rival pimp, Ryu (Chiba).

This is slightly better than its predecessor, though is still hampered by too much reliance on gambling. It doesn’t help that the cards here are not the ones familiar in the West. As a result, we only know how the game is going by the reaction of the participants. Imagine watching Casino Royale with no idea of how poker works. It’s like that. When not actually gambling, things improve, and interesting to see Chiba play somewhat against type. Ryu is more stammering comic relief than the typical Chiba hero, though this dates from 1972, a couple of years before his star-making role in The Street Fighter.

As in its predecessor, this isn’t exactly action-packed. The opening confrontation, between Nami and the Yakuza gang on the bridge, looks like it’s about to explode… Right up until she pulls a gun. That’s not exactly very samurai (or geisha), is it, Ms. Kaji? From there until Nami and Ryu storm Hoshiden’s headquarters, it’s restrained, with more drama than swordplay. However, it is better at sustaining interest than part one, helped by aspects such as Ryu’s noble approach to prostitution. As he says, “We don’t force you or watch what you do. Our motto is clean, virtuous and classy,” prompting the sarcastic retort from one of his whores, “Well, you sound like Governor Minobe!” [The socialist governor of Tokyo at that time]

These elements help tide viewers over the card-playing scenes, until all sword-swinging hell finally breaks loose. This is rather at odds with some of the broad stabs at humour previously attempted. The “how to use a bidet demonstration” scene sticks in my mind there, and not exactly as an iconic sequence of comedy. It doesn’t sit easily in a storyline kicked off when a daughter is sold into sex slavery by her own father, and the ending of the series with this entry suggests the intended market was equally unimpressed.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Meiko Kaji, Sonny Chiba, Junzaburo Ban, Yukie Kagawa

Queen of the South vs. La Reina Del Sur

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“She’s a woman in enemy territory. All women are in enemy territory for centuries, but in this case, this is particularly accentuated because the drug-dealing world is a very machista, hostile environment. Here, the survival of a woman in enemy territory is even more spectacular. That’s the original challenge of the novel — to ensure that in a machista, violent world, which is the territory of men — that in such a world where the women use the weapons of men, they use the intelligence and penetration of a woman. The challenge is for her to do more than what men do in those circumstances and for her to become the boss of men.”
Arturo Pérez-Reverte


There have been two, significantly different televisual adaptations of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel, La Reina Del Sur (you can read our review of the source material here). The first, was a Mexican telenovela that ran for 63 episodes during 2011. However, this summer saw the premiere of an American television series based on the same novel, which played on the USA Network. This covered 13 episodes thus far, and finished its first run last month, with the network agreeing to a second season next year. Let’s take a look at both shows: their similarities, differences, strengths and weaknesses, starting with the Mexican version.

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“The reina in Spain, stays mainly in the plain.”

The impact of La Reina Del Sur probably can’t be exaggerated. Right from the first episode, screened in February 2011 on Telemundo, it was a smash hit. The premiere drew the network’s biggest ratings ever for a first episode, and perhaps surprisingly, the audience was almost equally split between men and women. The following week, viewers increased by almost 20%, and beat all English-language stations in the 18-34 demographic. The final episode, on May 30th, was the most-watched program in Telemundo’s 19-year history – and again, was watched by more men than any show on TV at the time. Though since surpassed, it was also the station’s most-expensive production, shot in five countries and budgeted at $10 million, So if you’re expecting cheesy drama, you’re going to be surprised – at least somewhat.

It tells the story of Teresa Mendoza, whose life is thrown upside down when her boyfriend, El Guero, is killed by the organized crime gang for which he has been flying planes. She trades his notebook to the head of the gang, Epifanio Vargas (Zurita), in exchange for her help escaping to Spain. There, she gets a job as a waitress in a brothel, and gradually works her way up to running the place’s books. She begins a relationship with a smuggler, and learns the ropes of the trade from him, only for tragedy to strike. While trying to out-run the authorities, their boat crashes into rocks, killing him and leading to her being sent to prison.

reina2In jail, she links up with Colombian Patricia O’Farrell (Urgel), who knows the location of a huge cocaine stash, hidden by her late boyfriend from the Russian mafia. On their release, the pair work out a risky deal with Oleg Yasikov (Jiménez) to sell it back, giving them the cash to set up in the drug business, with Yasikov’s help. However, this attracts unwelcome attention from two fronts. The DEA start sniffing around, with the help of the local cops. Potentially more lethally, Epifanio is now on the political rise, and Teresa’s existence represents an unwelcome loose-end that must be tidied up. Not least because the DEA are interested in getting her back to Mexico to testify against him.

According to del Castillo, the entire series was shot in just seven months, which is an extremely quick pace: it works out at more than two episodes, or over an hour of new footage, every single week. At one point, the star required medical treatment for exhaustion. Arturo Pérez-Reverte, author of the source novel (whose work also inspired Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate), helped extend the material, a very necessary task given the 63 episodes the show lasted. Not having read the book myself, I can’t comment on what was added, but having read Werner’s scathing review, seems like the telenovela is superior to the novel, and has certainly made its heroine a more sympathetic character.

The two areas where it works best are Teresa Mendoza’s character arc, and the supporting cast. With the story unfolding over such a long period (by English-language TV standards), the former kinda creeps up on you. It’s only near the end, when the show includes a number of flashbacks to what Teresa used to be like, that you realize how drastically she has been changed by events. The plucky yet naive young woman to whom we were initially introduced has gone, replaced by a thoroughly hard-bitten woman, She learns the hard way that trust and affection are traits that can get you – or your loved ones – killed in her chosen profession. Frankly, the trail of dead bodies left behind Teresa in one way or another, is so high, her belief she may be cursed begins to seem credible.

reina3I also liked the background characters. O’Farrell is a hard-drinking, coke-snorting, flagrantly bisexual party girl, yet still vulnerable and insecure at her core. She’s played by Urgel, who looks like a supermodel version of Brienne of Tarth, taller than most of the men on the show [Per Google, she’s officially 5’7″, but as this pic of her, del Castillo and male star Ivan Sanchez shows… someone’s not telling the truth] Another woman Teresa meets in jail, who becomes a key part of her team is Marcela, known as “La Conejo” (the rabbit). She looks like she wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but actually poisoned her husband and his mother. Alberto Jiménez, as Yasikov, seems to be channeling Lee Van Cleef. Finally, DEA agent Willy Rangel, shows up early, vanishes in the middle, then comes back to be pivotal at the end, drinking coffee from his Union Jack mug.  Given this show is a marathon, not a sprint, having these to sustain interest is likely a necessity.

It is disappointingly low-key in terms of action: Teresa’s first boyfriend teaches her to shoot, as shown above. But after using it to escape early peril, she doesn’t fire another round until the final battle. To be honest, even the efforts at generating tension are only sporadically successful, and this is more drama-than thriller-inclined. There are some moments of plotting which don’t ring true either. Apparently, in Spain, police procedure means than when someone confesses to having hired a hitman, you then let them wander off upstairs on their own to, oh I dunno, tidy up or something. Such mis-steps are likely inevitable at some point though. All told, I found it acceptably entertaining, with a lot less time spent on torrid romance than I expected, and anchored by del Castillo’s sound performance.

Finally, in a bizarre element of life imitating art, Kate del Castillo subsequently became involved with notorious fugitive Mexican drug-lord El Chapo, after Tweeting about him in 2012. Turns out he was a fan of La Reina Del Sur, telling her, “That series that you made, I saw it and I loved it. I’ve seen it many times—you’re a great actress in it.” He authorized Kate to begin work on a film version of his life story, before his break-out from jail in July 2015. Subsequently, she traveled to Mexico, along with Sean Penn, to meet El Chapo, a trip which Penn later chronicled in a heavily-criticized article for Rolling Stone. The relationship brought del Castillo scrutiny by the Mexican government, including an investigation for involvement in money-laundering. As of July, this was still ongoing…

Star: Kate del Castillo, Cristina Urgel, Humberto Zurita, Alberto Jiménez

Queen of the South
starstarstarstar
“Don’t mess with Tex-Mexicans.”

I’ll likely have less to say about the American version, because thus far, it has run barely 20% of the length of its predecessor, and tells far from a completed story. It is, however, radically different to this point in a number of ways. The most obvious is the shift in Teresa’s destination from Spain to the United States. This has caused some complaints among fans of the series and the novel, yet seems entirely understandable, given this is aimed squarely at the mainstream American market. While she’s still running from her boyfriend’s former employer, with a book containing a wealth of incriminating evidence, that information plays a more significant part here, becoming the McGuffin which drives the final third of the first season.

queen2The other major difference is one of focus. Teresa (Braga) has, to this point, not risen very high at all up the ladder of the drug business. There’s some obvious foreshadowing that she will, in that her “spirit animal” is an impeccably-dressed version of herself. But that appears well off into the future. For now, the real “Queen of the South” so far is Camila Vargas (Falcon). She’s the separated wife of Epifanio Vargas (de Almeida), who runs the American side of the business. She seizes an opportunity presented by Epifanio’s political campaign, and is working on going into business entirely on her own, dealing directly with the Colombian cartels. Needless to say, this does not sit well with her former husband, and when she discovers he is also after Teresa – no more than a low-level runner in her Dallas, Texas organization – her interest is inevitably piqued.

So far, it has not been at all interested in romance, unlike LRdS, where Teresa’s various boyfriends and entanglements were a significant part of the show. This may develop down the road: for now, US Teresa has been too busy trying to survive. Likely as a consequence, she has also directly slain more people than Mexi-Teresa at the same point. The first came as the result of a drug deal/heist gone bad, and you could make a good case for self-defense. The killings in the final episode, however? Not so much. I sense she’s going to be considerably more “hands on” than LRdS, where Teresa delegated all the dirty work to her minions [I may be wrong, but I don’t recall her killing anyone personally until the shoot-out in the final episodes]

Where Queen really scores, however, is in its production values. Despite the solidity of the performances, Reina always felt like a soap-opera: largely enclosed in its sets and constrained by a budget that, while unprecendented by telenovela standards, was still low by comparison to American TV. That isn’t the case here: at its best, this even goes beyond television and has a cinematic feel, comparable with the likes of Traffic or Sicario. I particularly liked the use of music, which was certainly a lot more appropriate than the jaunty Norteño awfulness which permeated LRdS. [I should point out, my tolerance for country & western is equally low!] The electronic beats used here instead, felt a bit reminiscent of Miami Vice, or perhaps Giorgio Moroder’s work for Scarface, both of which are certainly relevant.

It’s a grittier version of the drug life too. In LRdS, you largely felt one or more degrees of separation from the harsh realities involved, with the drugs almost an abstract construct. There’s no such escape here, right from the opening episode when a drug mule has the packages she’s carrying burst in her stomach, with fatal results. But the biggest ace the show has so far is Vargas – a character not present at all in Reina, and neither in the book as far as I can tell. She’s part chess player, part grim reaper, with a voice which sounds like honey being slowly poured over sopapillas. She’s a fascinating, complex creation, beautifully portrayed by Falcon, and we’d have happily watched an entire series focused entirely on her.

Certainly, it’ll be interesting to see where the story develops from here. The first season ended with Epifanio ascending to the governorship of Sinaloa, and immediately exercising his new-found power, calling in the military against the cartel his ex-wife had just taken from him. Meanwhile, Teresa suffers a heart-breaking personal loss, yet rises above it to tell Camila, “I don’t work for you any more.” And, to nobody’s great surprise, there was a shock final twist, revealing something which wasn’t all that much of a shock, Reina having prepped me for it (albeit, a lot later there than in episode #13).  None of which diminished my interest in the next season, slated for summer 2017. While fans of the telenovela may choose to differ, I think any neutral would likely agree that this is a more polished and effective rendition of the story.

Star: Alice Braga, Veronica Falcon, Peter Gadiot, Joaquim de Almeida

queen3

The Queen of the South, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Literary rating: star
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

reina-novelDisclaimer at the outset: I haven’t read this novel from cover to cover. Seven years ago, I read the prologue and first three chapters; this time around, I read the first seven (re-reading the ones I’d read before), and skimmed the last ten and the epilogue –though I skimmed very thoroughly, taking about three hours and absorbing all of the major plot points. I feel qualified to give it a fair rating and review; but the level of bad language and grungy sexual content, blended with the tedious prose style and the wall-to-wall cynicism of the author’s literary vision (if we can call it that) made this too distasteful to read word-for-word any further.

Our title character here is Teresa Mendoza, who, when we first meet her, is a 22-year-old girl from Culiacan, Sinola, Mexico, a community dominated by the cross-border Mexican-U.S. drug traffic. Her boyfriend is a airplane pilot ferrying drugs for a local narco kingpin. But this boyfriend had a bad habit of defrauding his employer with side deals of his own and bragging about it when he was drunk; the prologue opens with her phone ringing to inform her that his boss has just had him killed –and that she’d better run, because the killers are on their way to dispatch her, too. Her resulting 13-year odyssey will take her to Spain (Perez-Reverte’s home country), see her eventually rise to control the drug traffic into and through southern Spain, and eventually bring her back full circle to the place of her birth and a reckoning with the past.

There’s a solid story here, which despite its seeming far-fetched improbability is plotted in a way that actually comes across as believable (except for Teresa settling and working in Spain under her real name, and not getting whacked within a matter of weeks!) and told with a few twists that I did not see coming, even though I’d skimmed the ending seven years earlier. The author appears to be extremely knowledgeable about the history and minutia of drug trafficking, at least up to 2002 when the novel was written (though he doesn’t quite understand that not all readers are necessarily as fascinated as he apparently is with every scrap of minutia). Teresa is a complex character, not one a reader will readily forget; and there are moments in the story that are quite emotionally evocative, even poignant.

However, the execution of the idea is wanting here, in several respects. First, Perez-Reverte gives us two interlaced narratives, Teresa’s own direct story in the third person and that of a journalist, in the first person, who’s piecing together her story from interviews with her (in the first chapter; most of the rest of her saga unfolds in flashback) and others who knew her. The actual meat of the story is in the former strand of narrative, however; the journalist’s really adds nothing except padding to bulk the book up to its 436 pages. There’s nothing of substance in his contribution that couldn’t have been conveyed much more economically, and with a more unified structure, by incorporating it into the third-person narrative. Every time we switch to his strand, there’s a marked loss of momentum and interest.

Even in the strand focused on Teresa directly, however, the prose is slow-moving, and detail heavy (about a third of the text could probably have been edited out without major damage, and it would have produced a quicker, more easily-flowing read). Given that it’s also peppered with constant f-words (probably incongruous for Spanish-language speakers) and other foul language and crude sexual content, both heterosexual and lesbian, for me it was a real chore to read as much as I did. Perez-Reverte (who’s the author of at least five other novels, though I haven’t read any of those) also affects a self-consciously “literary” style, with a lot of emphasis on his protagonist’s inner thoughts and on portentiously-described Significant Moments, which gets old quickly. In fairness to the author, the translator is probably responsible for the f-words and for the erroneous use of “clips” to describe ammunition magazines –and certainly for the frequent Spanish phrases left untranslated, apparently to give the text a Spanish flavor. (Most monolingual English-language readers would have preferred that he’d stuck to doing that with familiar words like “si” and “gracias,” that don’t need translation.)

reina-novel2For a writer who was so inclined, the subject matter here would be a gold mine for moral and social reflection. The storyline cries out for exploration of the (im)morality of a drug trade that corrupts and destroys every life it touches, of the roots of demand for drugs in modern society, of the inequities in Mexican government and society for which the drug trade is a symptom and a result, of the failure of the prison system as an instrument of rehabilitation or justice, and any number of other serious themes. Readers who bring the raw materials for such reflection with them to the book may indeed think about these things, but without any direct encouragement from the author. His basic message appears to be nihilistic cynicism; and if anything, he tends to glorify drug trafficking, in somewhat the same fashion as the “narcocorridos” that he quotes at times.

To the extent that he has a vision, it could fairly be summarized as: “Wow, Teresa is a tough survivor who climbs to the top of the heap against odds; isn’t she COOL?” Well –no. She is a tough survivor who can handle threatening situations with courage and resolution; she has intelligence and talents that could be put to more constructive uses than they get, and she demonstrates some instinctive basic decency in her face-to-face relations with people. But she’s incapable (or doesn’t want to be capable) of any reflection about the consequences of her actions for people who use the drugs she transports, and doesn’t come across as particularly likable or admirable in most ways that count. (We’re also asked to believe –unrealistically– that her own drug habit has no more psychological or physical consequences than chewing gum would have; and some readers probably will believe it, to their own detriment.) I wouldn’t characterize her as an evil villainess –but I wouldn’t call her a heroine or a role model, either.

Readers who frequent this site will, understandably, be interested in the book’s action component. I set Teresa’s kick-butt quotient at three stars as a matter of attitude; she’s pragmatic about the elimination of enemies, though unlike the drug lords of Sinola, she’s not into slaughtering their innocent families. (She may threaten it for effect, but the reader knows that on that score, her bark is worse than her bite; and she’s capable of mercy where others in her position might not have shown it.) But as far as any direct personal action on her part goes, she picks up and uses a gun here exactly twice, once near the beginning and once in the climactic shoot-out near the end. And that scene is described, in Perez-Reverte’s typically “literary” fashion, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style from a slightly befuddled viewpoint; he doesn’t handle the action with the clarity that some other writers would.

Author: Arturo Perez-Reverte
Publisher: Putnam, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.