The young Griselda Blanco: real (left) and telenovela versions.
“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
“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.
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.
In 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.
I 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
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.
The 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
“Scissors cuts… well, just about everything.”
As previously noted, one of the trademarks of the telenovela is the flashback, and the one we get here is a doozy. For, this begins with Rosario Tijeras (Yepez) being shot and rushed to hospital, prompting frantic phone-calls to her yuppie boyfriend, Emilio (Martinez). It then rewinds some five years, to show the events by which everyone got there, and takes roughly 45 episodes – three-quarters of the series! – to catch up and once more reach the point at which it began. Admittedly, this does reflects the structure of the source novel, and I don’t know if that’s why the final quarter feels like a marked improvement in terms of pacing and energy: the critically-injured Rosario is hunted in the hospital by those who want to finish the job, and has to be rescued by her brother Johnefe (Restrepo) and his crew – along with an unwilling doctor, to tend to Rosario in a workshop. From there, it’s an escalating series of death, betrayal, death, death, tragedy and death, with a body count that makes Hamlet look like Mary Poppins.
This is, however, getting well ahead of ourselves, and you have to trudge through your fair share of soap-opera drama and “love across the class divide” to reach these excellent 15 final episodes. It begins with Rosario still a schoolgirl, albeit a rebellious one: an incident where she gives a teacher an unrequested hair-cut gets her and pal Dayra expelled, but also gets her the “Tijeras” (scissors) nickname, and wins the heart of Antonio de Bedout (Sandoval), a student visiting her school as part of a college project. He is the son of a rich businessman! She is the daughter of a poor but honest beautician! They keep just missing each other, even though her mom does house-calls on his sisters! But, wait! There’s more! His best-friend, Emilio (Martinez), gets to Rosario first, and they begin a torrid romance! But he’s already in a relationship with Paula, a girl from his social level! Okay, enough already. Although I think I probably used up the entire month’s quota of exclamation points there, they did not die in vain – you presumably get the picture.
Fortunately, that’s not all that’s going on. After their expulsion, Dayra and Rosario work for the latter’s sleazy step-dad in the local market, selling cellphone minutes. Not cellphones. Cellphone minutes. They have a set of mobile phones chained to them, one for each carrier, and rent them out to whoever needs to call – I believe it’s the result of a market where calls between networks is extremely expensive, so if you want to speak to someone whose mobile uses a different carrier, it’s better to pay a small mark-up to a third-party. This demonstrates one of the confusing joys of watching foreign shows; the cultural differences, with things that seem strange to an outside, yet make perfect sense as part of the cultural norm, to locals.
I digress – but given a show telling a single story over 60 episodes, so does the series, so we’re even. Anyway, the girls’ job brings them into contact with their stepfather’s boss, Gonzalo González, whose even sleazier, and has a “thing” for young virgins. Hoping to make her way out of the slums, Dayra sashays into Gonzalo’s ranch, but when he discovers she is not quite as pure as advertised, his revenge is swift and brutal, and her lifeless body is found on a patch of wasteland. Meanwhile, Rosario is having issues of her own, culminating in her abduction and rape at the hands of a local gang led by Cachi. She takes revenge there first, castrating him, and then goes after Gonzalo – although the plan is for Johnefe to help her, she ends up entirely on her own resources, but doesn’t flinch, and he becomes her first victim. Gonzalo’s drug-running rival, Adonai, known as “The King of Heaven” is delighted by her actions, and the first phase of the show ends with her becoming part of his organization.
We then fast forward a few years. Emilio and Antonio encounter Rosario again, in a nightclub, and begin their dalliance anew, unaware that she was there on a job for the King, and is now a feared and notorious assassin for him. The love triangle is more of a love quadrilateral, thanks to barrio boy Ferney, and it’s this which provides the key to the Shakespearean events of the second half. Rosario discovers evidence that the king’s brother, Teo, is deceiving him, having swapped out two tons of cocaine for sugar, blown up the plane on which the cargo was being transported, then sold the real thing off to another buyer. Teo realizes Rosario must be silenced, and convinces Ferney that he has no chance with her, when put beside the rich yuppies, and that she’s going to betray her roots for a future as part of the upper classes to which the pair belong. And that’s how we eventually end up, 45 episodes later, back where we started, with Rosario being rushed to hospital.
The early going is certainly more soap-opera than anything else, it still makes for adequate entertainment, with the good characters appropriately likeable, and the bad ones suitable evil. That said… Damn, the guys in this show appear to be almost entirely driven by their genitalia. In particular, Emilio has absolutely no issue with bedding Rosario, even as he is going out with, then engaged to, and even married to Paula Restrepo, an aspiring model. She shows rather more tolerance for his roaming than I would, and I can’t really blame her for eventually taking steps to remove Rosario from her married life. But Emilio is hardly alone: there’s an entire subplot involving Antonio’s father, Luis Enrique, who has been having a long-time affair with his secretary, including a secret daughter, which may explain his wife’s heavy drinking. Not sure how much of this is in the book, and how much is additional padding: I suspect the latter, since when you’ve got 60 episodes to fill, you’re likely going to need more material than a single novel. Some aspects does appear directly derived, however – or, at least, were also in the film version, made five years previously.
One such is the funeral of one character: it appears such events, at least in the Medellin slums, are rather less… formal than we’re used to. By which, I mean the corpse is paraded about on a sun-lounger, to loud reggaton, then placed on the back of a motorcycle which pulls wheelies around the neighbourhood. Like I said: these kind of cultural differences, can only be accepted for what they are. Though it might have helped if Netflix had the same person subtitle all the episodes, as there are sometimes confusing inconsistencies. It took me a while to figure out that characters called “Querubin” and “Mago” were the same ones called “Cherub” and “the Magician” elsewhere, depending on whether the subtitler bothered to translate their names. Even more confusing, Netflix managed to list one episode entirely out of order. When watched in the order provided, this led to Luis Enrique’s affair-daughter suddenly being held to ransom, for no apparent reason, then being released, and only finally, getting kidnapped – at which point, it all made sense, rather than being some particularly obscurist structure involving nested flashbacks.
One aspect worthy of note is that the police aren’t shown here as being particularly corrupt or bad, in contrast to some I’ve seen where they are the “bad guys”. Detective Pamela Pulido, played by Jenny Vargas Sepulveda, is both honest and smart, and gets a fair amount of screen-time as she tries to disentangle the increasing mess with her partnet, Isaak – in particular, by turning up the heat on Emilio and Antonio. [During filming, there was an odd incident where Sepulveda was arrested and held for five hours, at the airport on the way to Medellin, after her luggage was inexplicably found to contain a number of live rounds of ammunition!] Rosario’s second step-father, Libardo, is also a member of the police force, though his morality turns out to be considerably more murky, even if some of his actions largely appear to be driven by concern for the welfare of his step-daughter.
I’d have liked to see more from the period over which the show entirely skips, showing Rosario’s rise to the top of the King’s accomplices, rather than the various subplots involving the business and property dealings of the de Bedout family. The show is called Rosario Tijeras after all, and should be about the heroine and her lethal exploits, not country-club memberships and tennis matches. Still, even during the lengthy periods where it focuses more on the drama than action, the cultural freshness and generally engaging nature of the people depicted, kept this ticking over. Rosario herself makes for a very good and strong heroine, who takes absolutely no shit from anyone, and when life gives her lemons, she makes lemonade – albeit, one imagines, only after repeatedly stabbing the lemons with a pair of scissors.
Star: Maria Fernanda Yepez, Andres Sandoval, Sebastián Martínez, Juan David Restrepo
The recent arrival of a large batch of telenovelas on Netflix has opened the window on a new field of potential action heroines. For these Latin American TV series – often (and, admittedly, not entirely incorrectly) derided as soap operas – appear to be featuring an increasing number of strong heroines. Before we get to the reasons for that, let’s have an overview of the field in general. They began in the 1950’s, springing up almost simultaneously out of Brazil, Cuba and Mexico, but there is now hardly a Spanish-speaking country that doesn’t produce them – indeed, the style has also been adopted by non-Hispanic countries, such as Korea. That format differs from soap-opera in that it is less open-ended: rather than an indeterminate run, it is a single story, told in concentrated form, typically daily, or at least multiple episodes per week.
While associated with romantic entanglements, class divides, family drama. terminal illness, pregnancies and extreme over-acting, that is not quite accurate. Yes, there are plenty which feature that kind of thing – the four R’s of the genre being romance, rivalry, revenge and redemption – and even the top-end are still budget productions by the standards of English language television, costing at most $170,000 per 45-minute episode, a fraction of the $1 million per episode spent in Hollywood on even the cheapest of scripted dramas. But an increasing number have become more interesting and gritty, exploring darker themes. There’s even a telenovela version, also available on Netflix, of Breaking Bad, called Metástasis, which is basically identical to the original, right down to a hero called “Walter Blanco”.
In particular, the landscape changed with the unprecedented success of La Reina del Sur in 2011. During its American screenings, even though it was on a purely Spanish-language station, Telemundo, it was often the most-watched program in the coveted age 18-49 demographic, beating the English-language channels. Its finale scored the highest-ever ratings in Telemundo’s history, and was seen by about the same number of people as watched the last episode of, say, Parks and Recreation. [An English language remake, Queen of the South, starring Sonia Braga, will appear on the USA Network later this year] It was the station’s most expensive production, but it’s the story – a woman who rose from nothing to become the biggest drug boss in southern Spain – which matters here.
For the new ground it broke, in its depiction of a heroine who could be as tough and ruthless as any man, clearly resonated with the audience. Inevitably, the show spawned a slew of others seeking to imitate its success, with similarly single-minded and ambitious heroines, prepared to gun down anyone who wrongs them, or gets in their way. And it’s this new generation of telenovelas, that we find showing up on Netflix in bulk. But where to start? That’s what this article is for: I’ve watched the series of potential interest to gauge whether they deliver on the potential offered by their covers. Though I give you a caveat. These shows typically run anywhere up to 80 episodes, and watching that would be about three months of the viewing time I devote to this site. So, I’ve based what follows, mostly on the first 10 episodes of each. Full reviews will follow eventually.
Before I break them down. there are some common elements in these shows, worth addressing to avoid having to repeat myself!
- The glamorization of criminality. The heroines here are generally not cops, private eyes or other characters on the side of law and order. They are almost all criminals; some begin as criminals (or their other halves), some become criminals, and others have criminality forced upon them. But the escape from whatever perils befall them inevitably involves illegal activities of one kind or another.
- Flashbacks R Us. In most of these, we join proceedings at a particularly dramatic moment, and then skip back to see what brought us to that point. This isn’t unheard of in American TV of course – the “24 hours previously” trope – but in telenovelas, this can last for multiple episodes. Indeed, in at least one case, I get the feeling the entire series may be a flashback.
- Sexual assault as a plot-device. Unfortunate, this one, and also symptomatic of lazy writing, in that the creators can’t seem to think of many other ways to trigger the heroines into action. Want her to move out? Sleazy stepfather tries it on. Need her to get her hands bloody? Rape and revenge! Then again, it kinda makes sense, since they seem to take place in a universe where all men appear to be scumbags with exactly one thing on their minds…
- Recommended for viewing at about 75% attention. If I actually sit down and watch these, their flaws (such as fairly obviously being shot on video) tend to become a bit too glaring. I’ve found that they’re more palatable watched while doing something else, lightly-engaging – in my case, the daily stint on the treadmill.
Camelia la Texana
If perhaps the least “action heroine-y” of the shows taste-tested here, there’s a fair case to be argued for the storyline being the most interesting, overall. The show was inspired by Contrabando y Traición (Smuggling and Betrayal), one of the first “narcocorrido” songs from legendary norteño band, Los Tigres Del Norte. It tells of Emilio and Camelia who smuggle drugs into America, only for him to dump her. Camelia does not respond well: she shoots him seven times and vanishes with the money. It led to a movie of the same name, and has since become embedded in popular Hispanic culture, even becoming an opera in 2013, with Camelia becoming a mythical figure, whether or not she ever was based on a real person.
A three-minute song doesn’t have enough meat for a 60-episode series, so of necessity the show expands the scope significantly. With occasional flashbacks to events during the forties, it mostly takes place in the early seventies, when Camelia (Sara Maldonado) is training to be a dentist in Texas, working part-time at a diner, and waiting for her boyfriend to return from the Vietnam War. In short order, pretty much all of that falls apart, and she is instead thrown together with a well-groomed gangster called Emilio Varela (Erik Hayser), who has been tasked with bringing Camelia back to Mexico, where a drug lord has an inexplicable – well, it’s pretty explicable, actually – interest in her.
If Camelia has not, in the early going, done much to justify the viewer’s interest [thus far, she has mostly been making gooey eyes at her beau], the rest of the show is quite intriguing. There’s a power struggle south of the border between rival gangs, and it’s the women there who hold much of the power, albeit from the shadows. There’s even an occult subplot, involving a blind young girl who can foresee the future – as well as a transvestite shaman who cannot, despite her claims! Add in a good deal of political chess, and there has been enough to sustain interest, while we twiddle our thumbs, waiting – if the series is true to the song – for Camelia to pop the requisite seven bullets into Emilio and, one hopes, head into business on her own terms.
La Esquina Del Diablo
I was initially pretty excited by this one because unlike the other shows, its central character is a policewoman, not a perp. Ana García (Ana Serradilla, fresh off the success of La Viuda Negra – more on which below) blows her chance at joining the special forces due to her temper. But she is then recruited for a clandestine mission into the lawless barrio of the title (which translates as “The Devil’s Corner”). The crime-lord who rules it, Ángel Velasco, has supposedly just been killed in a helicopter accident, but there are suspicions this was staged. In the guise of a social worker, Ana infiltrates the area, in her mission to find out what’s really going on.
By the end of the first episode, García has proven her bad-ass credentials, gunning down four robbers and arresting two more after stumbling into a crime in progress. Unfortunately for my adrenalin levels, this was an exception rather than the rule over the first 10 episodes, as the undercover nature of her work relies more on stealth than the banging of heads together. Indeed, the focus as a whole becomes a good deal more diluted, with the script juggling a large number of balls. These included, but are not limited to: Ana’s boss, who is dating the mayor’s daughter; Velasco’s quest for a large quantity of explosives; his second in command’s delinquent son, befriended by Ana in her social worker guise; a rival criminal gang, operating in the heart of the city rather than the barrio.
It’s a lot of threads to try and keep in the air, and I’m not sure it has been entirely successful thus far. It seems pretty clear where this is going to end up, with Ana and her boss having already shared their first, fleeting kiss. However, the second in command mentioned above, Yago, has the kind of smouldering good looks you know they’re not going to waste on celibacy. So I strongly suspect we’re going to see, down the road, Ana having to make some kind of dramatic choice between the two men in her life, on opposing sides of the law. I may be beginning to get the hang of this whole telenovela thing…
There are some positives. The location work is good, and much like Rosario Tijeras, you get a clear sense of the class divide in Colombia between the haves and the have-nots. I’m also intrigued by Michelle (Estefania Piñeres), one of Velasco’s enforcers. I have to wonder whether she was named after Michelle Rodriguez, for she sports a similar sneer, chip on the shoulder and corn-row hair-style. Hopefully, her character won’t be disposed off too quickly; if they can also give Ana more of an active role, rather than her character just being a passive information gathering conduit back to her boss, there’s still potential. While Serradilla’s charisma is still undeniable, it needs to be more focused than it has been thus far.
Based on a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, as noted above, this was the entry which truly kicked off the recent surge in the market. It’s the story of Teresa Mendoza (Kate del Castillo), whose boyfriend is “killed” by his drug-dealing cronies, which forces her on the run. She heads over to Spain, and begins work as a waitress at a brothel in the North African enclave of Melilla, after refusing a more “horizontal” position there, and begins to work her way up the crime ladder. However, her ambition brings her to the jealous attention of a workmate, who frames her for dealing drugs – to avoid deportation, she has to sleep with the brothel’s owner, although this also brings her into contact with the real power behind the local throne, Colonel Abdelkader Chaïb.
I like Teresa’s unwillingness to compromise her ideas: even though she’s on the run, she clearly has a goal, is intent on achieving it, and woe betide anyone who stands in her way. She’s also fiercely loyal to those who help her – and even has a sympathetic streak for her enemies (as we see when the woman who framed her falls afoul of her abusive boyfriend). It’s nice she also finds someone possessing similar moral scruples – smuggler Santiago Fisterra (Iván Sanchez), reluctant to transport cocaine or people, even though that’s where the big money is. Although nothing much has happened between then in the first 10 episodes, I’m predicting a relationship in their future. To be frank, I’m also predicting a return for her original boyfriend, because the way they filmed his death appeared deliberately vague i.e. no actual body was ever seen, to the point of obviousness.
Teresa has been relatively restrained in her actions so far, except for shooting one of her boyfriend’s former colleagues who tried (sigh… inevitably) to rape her. However, she has managed to disarm the jealous counterpart who came at her with a knife, and one senses more to come. I also like that much of this has taken place outside the standard settings of Mexico and Columbia, with the heroine now the one who is maligned for her otherness, and “talking funny”, even if Teresa plays up to the stereotypes as much as runs counter to them. When a friend needs help getting her son from Morocco into the enclave, Teresa basically points out that “us Mexicans are good at crossing borders”! Donald Trump would likely not disagree, but I suspect it’s likely for the best if we keep politics off the site.
The first one I tried, in part because the title was familiar from a film adaptation of the same novel, which I’d already seen. This one is a little older, dating back to 2010, and like the movie, is also from Colombia. The heroine, Rosario (María Fernanda Yépes), gets her nickname – Tijeras means “scissors” – after an incident at her Medellin school where she cuts off the hair of a teacher who is scolding her. That gets her expelled, but she also catches the attention of a visiting college student, Emilio, who spends many subsequent episodes trying unsuccessfully to track her down. Meanwhile, she also comes to the attention of an underworld boss with a thing for virgins, and he eventually provides Rosario with her first kill – a murder that is gratefully received by his rivals, and allows her to become a full-time assassin.
I’ve actually gone deeper into this one – 30 episodes to date, though that’s still well short of even half way – and it certainly does take its time to get going, with Emilio’s inability to locate her, in particular outstaying its welcome. Despite a tagline which proclaims “It’s harder to love than to kill.” there is clearly a great deal more of the former than the latter, and even though the men are generally more engaging and well-drawn than in some of the other series, that doesn’t stop them from behaving like stags during the breeding season. There’s also a big helping of class divide here, with the show depicting both the working-class lifestyle of Rosario and her family, which is in sharp contrast to the upper-class one enjoyed by Emilio and his chums.
If somewhat short on action thus far, it has still been entertaining viewing, not least by providing a door into a world that’s far removed from anything familiar to me. The split focus helps maintain freshness, and there’s greater depth given to the supporting cast than usual. The show came in for a lot of flak at the time of its broadcast in Colombia for glamorizing the drug traffickers lifestyle, with the main local newspaper sniffily calling the series a “gulp of absurdity, vulgarity, bad manners and a big dose of narco-culture.” Needless to say, that didn’t exactly stop the show from becoming a big ratings hit.
Well, this one doesn’t hang around. Inside the first episode, we’ve seen a wedding turn into a blood-bath, as heroine Sara Aguilar (Blanca Soto) sees her marriage to a Tijuana police commander lead to her own kidnapping and near-rape, her father’s death, and not one but two assassination attempts on her husband – he survives the first, but not the second. Turns out he was actually in bed with the cartel, unknown to Sara, and during a drinking session, unwisely boasted about stealing $3 million from them. [Memo to self: not a good idea] They presume she knows where the money is, and she has to bail with her son for Guadalajara, while fending off others trying to figure out the stash’s location – not just the cartel, also the mayor of Tijuana, and even her own family members, who blame her for the misfortune which has befallen them.
However, despite some cool imagery – Sara riding through the forest on horseback in a tattered wedding-dress – this is likely the most “traditional” of the shows, and is probably the worse for it. There’s an excess of angst-filled family feudin’, and way too much in the way of medical misfortune as a plot device: inside the first 10 episodes covered here, we’ve already had multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, and a surprise pregnancy – that’s all discounting the plastic surgery disasters overseen by Enriqueta Sabido (Rebecca Jones), who uses cooking oil when there’s no silicone to be found. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a steady stream of dead bodies out the back door of her beauty salon. Frankly, she’s probably a bit more interesting and lively character than Sara, who has spent much of the time so far pouting ferociously and being concerned about her son’s health.
Maybe it’ll pick up down the road. For this was such a success it became one of the few telenovelas to be renewed, getting not just a second season, but a third due out at the end of this year. While not available yet on Netflix, the second series looks like it might be a bit of an improvement going by this promo pic. Absolutely nothing along those lines has yet to show up in the show thus far!
La Viuda Negra
This is, at least nominally, based on a true story, having been inspired by Griselda Blanco, a.k.a. “The Godmother,” who was one of the major players in the boom days of cocaine trafficking into Miami, in the seventies and eighties. Naturally, the actress who plays her here, Ana Serradilla, is considerably less homely than the real person – though since Catherine Zeta-Jones is playing Blanco in an upcoming Hollywood film, we can’t really mock the telenovela for prettifying the character.
In some ways, it certainly pays fast and loose with the truth. It begins with Blanco facing the death penalty in New York, and flashes back as she literally takes her seat in the electric chair. Never happened – indeed, no-one at all in New York state has been executed since 1963. But in other ways, it appears fairly accurate: her first serious criminal activity, kidnapping the son of a rich family for ransom, a crime which ended in her shooting the victim dead, did actually occur. Although she was actually younger in real life: eleven years old, which is likely more disturbing than anything scripted drama can offer.
The best thing about this is its relentless forward progress: going by the frantic early pace, there’s a lot to cover. In the first 10 episodes alone, Blanco goes to Medellin, joins a street gang, escalates to that kidnapping, and is then forced on the run by the victim’s rich parent who is obsessed with revenge. That leads to a lengthy hunt, as well as Blanco shooting her first husband for betraying her. She then heads to Ecuador, teams up with a local drug boss there, and returns to Medellin for revenge of her own, before setting up shop, and beginning her plan to import copious quantities of cocaine to the United States, hidden in high-heeled shoes. While I don’t know whether it can keep this going, so far, this has been among the most enjoyable of the series, and is probably the one I’m most interested in continuing.