Brilliante Mendoza's Captive is not quite the blunt, relentless kidnapping drama you may expect from the man who shocked audiences at Cannes 2009 with the feel-awful neo-noir Kinatay. This time, Mendoza casts the net considerably wider. Though the film rarely delivers the visceral thrust and propulsion found in the most thrilling reality-based films, it still delivers a gripping ride and leaves viewers with plenty to think about.
The film chronicles the perils of a group of twenty tourists in The Philippines who are captured by the Muslim extremist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and held for ransom. The film says that it's based on a true story, however it's really more of a mélange of true stories streamlined into one by Mendoza after extensive research and interviews with hostages, kidnappers, and military personnel. He bases the locations and sequence of events specifically on the 2001 Dos Palmas kidnappings.
The film begins with utter confusion, as the ASG storms the resort armed with huge assault rifles, tearing all men, women, and children out of bed and herding them onto the boat. In all of the confusion, Therese Bourgoine (Isabelle Huppert), a French social worker/missionary, and her Filipina colleague are taken as well, though they haven't yet set foot in the resort. A long, grueling journey into the jungle ensues as the ASG gradually ransoms off the hostages.
Meanwhile, while the Filipino military isn't exactly ignoring the problem, they aren't extremely helpful either. Their number one goal is to take out the ASG, and the hostages are more of an afterthought. So each strike against the group by the military, who rushes in eyes-closed and guns-blazing, actually puts all of the hostages in just as much danger as their captors.
Mendoza has never been much for subtlety, and Captive is no exception. At times, this tendency serves the material well. During one spectacular sequence, Mendoza cuts between a chaotic, free-for-all gunfight at a hospital and a graphic scene of a woman giving birth inside. Sure, you can justifiably tear apart this sequence with any number of art-film-criticism buzzwords (obvious, pretentious, indulgent, etc.), but after watching so many filmmakers play it safe with images and end up with nothing, I was grateful that Mendoza went all out.
On the other hand, the film often also cuts to interludes of wildlife in the jungle, and while some of it is captivating on its own terms, it doesn't really serve the film in the Terrence-Malick way that I think Mendoza was intended. But it's never boring. The only times the film really slows down are when Mendoza gets into the religious aspects and the contrasting faiths of the captives and the kidnappers. This issue comes up repeatedly, but only at a surface level.
When the film drags, however, Isabelle Huppert is there to buoy it. Hopefully there is no longer much debate about whether Huppert is one of the bravest, most talented actors of our time, but be that as it may, her dedication and range in this role are still stunning. (the film was shot in sequence all over The Philippines). The other actors do an excellent job as well, specifically the team of kidnappers. Rather than simply portraying them as extremist-boogiemen, Mendoza gives their characters more space, allowing them to display a gentle camaraderie, wit, and even surprising compassion. When one prisoner develops a crush on one of her captors, we don't agree with the decision, but we believe it.
The film rarely relays into direct information about the way the group works, their history, or the government's policy against them, and so the film is thrilling because we are at first only a little less confused than the captives. Gradually, the picture becomes clearer, But between the inherent suspense of the situation, the complex, humanistic portrayals of the ASG members and the political questions raised, Captive leaves a lasting impression -- even if the attempts at symbolism don't.