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Tue Dec 31, 2019, 06:57 PM

Stream It Or Skip It: 'El Pepe, a Supreme Life' on Netflix, a Thoughtful Documentary Profile of Urug

Stream It Or Skip It: ‘El Pepe, a Supreme Life’ on Netflix, a Thoughtful Documentary Profile of Uruguay’s Former President
By John Serba @johnserba
Dec 31, 2019 at 4:00pm

Netflix documentary El Pepe, a Supreme Life enjoys significant, intimate access to former Uruguayan president Jose “El Pepe” Mujica. Anyone familiar with El Pepe’s personality won’t be at all surprised by this — he’s a remarkably accessible leader who foregoes formality for humility. Considering he’s an unrepentant socialist, no one can ever call him a hypocrite. This is just one aspect of director Emir Kusturica’s documentary, which attempts to capture the true character of its subject.

The Gist: Kusturica spent three years filming El Pepe — 2013-15, up to the final day of his presidency. The film’s opening scenes depict a man who’s modest and grounded to the point of eccentricity: He farms his own land, driving his own tractor. His home is visibly weathered and exceptionally ordinary (he famously chose not to live in the presidential palace during his tenure). His pet chihuahua only has three legs. The camera captures him taking a nap in his bed, and when he gets up, he’s wearing no pants — funny not because we’ve seen the president of Uruguay in his skivvies, but because he puts them on exactly how you expect him to. Right. One leg at a time.

What follows is a combination of similar moments — he teaches children to cultivate flowers, he oversees the construction of new housing for citizens in poverty — and biographical sketches narrated by El Pepe. He talks extensively about his time in prison, less gruesome detail (Google it and you’ll learn he suffered extreme mental breakdowns while existing in solitary confinement at the bottom of a horse trough), more philosophical reflections about how the experience made him who he is. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement; one of his comrades claimed they invented urban guerilla warfare. The group violently resisted dictatorial politics, and El Pepe openly talks about the power he felt when he robbed banks to give money to the poor — acts he calls “expropriations.”

He talks about the deep love he has for his wife, Lucia Topolansky, also a former militant, and their love story is a charming subplot of the film. In one tense scene, a citizen confronts and insults him, and they argue; that El Pepe resorts to childish name-calling only deepens his reputation as an ordinary man. On his final day as president, he works the fields and rides in his trademark vintage blue Volkswagen beetle to the grand ceremony in Montevideo; on the way, he pumps his own gas, and worries that the country he loves is veering towards the ugliness of late capitalism.


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