Spanish-Language Series Excel at Complex Characters

I’m a sucker for a flawed hero. I’ll take an overweight, chain-smoking, morally conflicted leading man over an infallible, Hollywood-chiseled crusader any day.

That must explain why I’m so attracted to Mario Conde, the down-and-out detective dreamed up by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura. He’s all that’s wrong and all that’s good about Cuban society wrapped into one tormented, much-loved soul.

A frustrated writer turned cop, Conde stumbles through case after case, always on the verge of getting fired, slouching from one ill-fated affair to another, smoking and caffeinating his way from morning hangover to late-night drinking sessions with his equally deflated boyhood pals.

Four feature-length episodes of Conde tales, “Cuatro Estaciones en La Habana,” are now streaming on Netflix, though this noir gem hasn’t received the same publicity as the bigger Netflix-backed series “Narcos.” The Colombia-set mega-production, which also explores moral ambiguities through its broad cast of characters, premiered its third season on Sept. 1.

Four Seasons in Havana

Brought to the screen by Spanish director Félix Viscarret with a script by Padura and Lucía López Coll, the cinematic miniseries offers more evidence for why television and online series are giving feature films a run for their money. The first episode was released in theaters in Spain.

On the tired side of 50 but boyishly insolent, Conde’s languid investigations of local crimes send him into assorted underworlds of Havana society, providing the pretext for what is at heart a character study about a middle-aged man refusing to face his demons. Veteran actor Jorge Perugorría embodies him to perfection.

In each episode, Conde falls in love with the wrong woman, engages in drunken arguments with his friends about their own – and their country’s – unfulfilled promises, and elicits the weary yet tender resignation of his colleagues. And Conde also always solves the case, invariably uncovering corruption along the way.

Set to a sensual jazzy soundtrack with some classic rock and Cuban sounds thrown in, “Four Seasons” puts Havana on sultry display in all its dilapidated glory. The storylines convey the sense that the island capital is like a small village, where everyone knows each other or knows of each other through friends, acquaintances or a shared past.

In a wink to Cuban film fans, “Four Seasons” also reunites Perugorría with his “Strawberry and Chocolate” co-star Vladimir Cruz, who here plays his lieutenant nemesis, always watching out for ways to get Conde sacked. It’s a fate Conde might not mind if he knew what else to do.

Narcos

It’s hard to know who to root for in “Narcos.” The supposed good guys, the American DEA agents and the Colombian authorities, are often in bed with the bad guys, drug lords like Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel or vigilante groups like ‘Los Pepes.’

Meanwhile, Escobar acts like a latter day Robin Hood by investing drug profits back into poor neighborhoods of Medellín, and the businessmen behind the Cali Cartel want to negotiate surrender and shift their livelihood to legitimate enterprises.

The pace of “Narcos” couldn’t be more different from “Four Seasons,” but the characters’ internal conflicts keep you interested beyond the dizzying action. If you find yourself tiring of the sad-eyed narcissist Escobar (played by Brazil’s Wagner Moura), the protagonist prey of the first two seasons, hang tight: by season three he’s gone.

In his place are the fleshed-out characters of the Cali Cartel, known as the “Gentlemen of Cali” despite their masochist streak, the compromised DEA agent Javier Peña (Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal) who provides the season’s narration, and cartel security chief Jorge Salcedo (Swedish-born Matias Varela), an honest family man trying desperately to get out of the business.

“Narcos” is filmed mostly in Colombia and shot in Spanish and English with casts switching seamlessly between languages. The mash-up of accents by actors hailing from across Latin America, Spain and the US isn’t too noticeable, especially for English-speaking audiences, and the voiceover is always in English.

This multinational essence, seen both on screen and behind camera in the production’s crew, may be the series’ biggest innovation. Documentary footage and news images of the real-life protagonists of the ‘80s and ‘90s-era drug war also underscore the effort that’s gone into matching the production design with actual history, even if some facts have been changed (one oft-heard critique of the show).

While you may be tempted to plan a trip to Cuba after watching “Four Seasons,” the ferociously violent “Narcos” isn’t likely to do much for the Colombian tourist sector. Or Mexico’s, where – in a scary display of life seemingly imitating life – a location scout for the fourth season of “Narcos” was reportedly shot dead in September.

 

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