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BERLINALE 2024 Competition

Review: Pepe


- BERLINALE 2024: While the peculiar sound the eponymous hippo makes in Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias’s film lingers in the mind after the screening, everything else is washed away quickly

Review: Pepe

It’s not easy to say if Pepe [+see also:
interview: Nelson Carlo De Los Santos …
film profile
, Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias’s feature that hopes to bag the Golden Bear at the 74th Berlinale, is one of those cinematic jokes that outstay their welcome, a serious yet unconventional take on capitalism and colonialism, or something that can only be described as claiming ownership of its own story. But whatever it is, unfortunately, it’s only half-successful.

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The titular Pepe is a hippopotamus that was kidnapped from the waters of a Namibian river by Pablo Escobar, on one of the drug lord’s whims. The animal got his name from the Colombian press, after it broke out and roamed freely in the Magdalena River. The director gives the hippo a voice and a lot of existential doubts – we hear Pepe both indulging in monologues about its existence and making a weird sound, something between a grunt, a roar and menacing, cartoonish laughter.

Initially, Pepe speaks Afrikaans, then Spanish, taking on the language of the colonisers – those who invaded South West Africa, and those who colonised Colombia and who kidnapped him. Thus, it would seem that Pepe adds to the slew of films dealing with colonialism and giving a voice to those who were oppressed and forcibly muted. It would also fit one of the trends in arthouse cinema – the discussion about who gets to tell whose stories. Here, Pepe the hippo is not only the subject of the film; he’s also one of its narrators.

However fresh and original the concept seems at the start, then the human characters get added to the story and, of course, ruin it. We observe Escobar’s henchmen transporting Pepe to his hacienda, villagers encountering and hunting the animal, and there are even tourists who come to Africa to watch animals and who learn facts about hippos (they run faster than humans!) from the guide and a local bus driver. Even this short sequence shows how Europeans still think of Africa as a place that is there to entertain them, and taking photos of a hippopotamus is shown as a gesture akin to taking ownership of the animal.

All of these scenes add to the two-hour running time, and somewhere in the middle, it starts to drag, especially when Pepe disappears from the screen and swims away to do his hippo business. Switching the camera – no matter if it’s a 16mm or just a digital one – to focus on hunters and oppressors, and turning the animal into game, makes the film conventional again, and it feels like it’s losing its bearings.

There is also a possibility that Pepe is just a cinematic joke, but these, too, require a certain tempo and some fast-paced storytelling. And as much as the sound that the hippo makes echoes in the brain long after the lights come up, everything else blurs and fades away much quicker than any human filmmaker would like.

Incidentally, during the second day of the Berlinale, a huge giraffe escaped from the local zoo and disrupted the S-Bahn services. Maybe it heard Pepe’s calling?

Pepe is a co-production between the Dominican Republic, Namibia, Germany and France, staged by Monte y Culebra, Joe Vision Production CC, Pandora Filmproduktion and 4 A 4 Productions. Its world sales are up for grabs.

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Photogallery 21/02/2024: Berlinale 2024 - Pepe

5 pictures available. Swipe left or right to see them all.

Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias, Jhon Narvaez, Fareed Matjila, Nahuel Palenque, Pablo Lozano, Tanya Valette
© 2024 Dario Caruso for Cineuropa -,, Dario Caruso

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