I've placed this clip right at the top of this entry because it's taken from the first few minutes of Captive, just after armed terrorists have stormed what appears to be a small town or encampment on the beach somewhere out there in the Pacific, nabbed whoever's available and forced them at gunpoint onto boats waiting in the harbor. Because you know you're watching a film by Brillante Mendoza, you assume all this is taking place in the Philippines. Otherwise, unless you've Googled "Abu Sayyaf" and learned that it's "one of several military Islamist separatist groups based in and around the southern Philippines" or read the program notes ("The attack was intended to target employees of the World Bank, but they have already left the resort. The abductees are tourists and Christian missionaries who are now forced on a grueling foot march through the Philippine jungle"), you'll be disoriented as those abductees and remain as in the dark as they are as to the reasons, goals and possible outcomes of the kidnapping. Over the next two hours, we'll know nothing more about their ordeal, which is to stretch out all but aimlessly for more than a year, than they do. Which, of course, is the point.
A few minutes after the sequence in the clip, one of the leaders yells out a few ground rules to the hostages. They've been taken in the name of Osama bin Laden. There is a dress code: men are to remain covered from the navel to the knees. Women are to keep their arms and legs covered at all times. Men are to touch no women other than their wives. Anyone who steals will have his or her hands cut off — and even as this rule is being barked out, Mendoza shows us another kidnapper sorting through the loot and actually pulling glittering jewelry up over his wrist in the foreground of his frame. What's more, it turns out that the whole operation is a fundraising campaign: each captive is being held for the highest possible ransom.
The blatant hypocrisy's just for starters. Referencing the Quran left and right to justify whatever action they feel needs taking at any given moment, the terrorists mete out beheadings, take wives against their will and toss boxes of Bibles overboard as dead weight. It'll seem to some that Mendoza is playing with fire here, or even stoking the flames of anti-Islamic sentiment. But each time the terrorists raise their guns to the sky, fire off a few rounds and shout out "God is great!," it's clear enough that they might as well be yelling "¡Viva la Revolución!" or "Long live the King!" or, for that matter, "Remember the Alamo!" Beyond a certain point, extremists of any stripe wind up detaching themselves from their original motivations.
Stylistically, Mendoza is the polar opposite of the subject of yesterday's Berlinale entry, Christian Petzold. Mendoza creates extraordinarily naturalistic situations in real space of chaos and repose, tension and tenderness, shoot-outs and shout-downs — and then seemingly waves a camera around in the hopes of capturing enough usable footage to piece together some semblance of what's played out on the editing table. There is one remarkable exception, though, a crane shot that begins high above the jungle canopy and swoops down through the trees to settle on a line of marching ants (they're a recurring motif).
And then there's the matter of Isabelle Huppert. There are passages in Captive in which Mendoza seems to be going out of his way to demonstrably treat his single genuine star like all the other hostages as they peel off leeches, sleep on logs, the works; but there are also other passages that suggest that if the viewer is to latch on to any one point of view, it's to be hers. Regardless, she's a trooper, not just in terms of the considerable physical distress the entire cast must have endured but also when it comes to doing what she can with what appears to be little material with which to improvise, as in one scene in which she's asked to mother it up for one of the younger terrorists. I can't help but add one trivial note: she's got just about the strangest scream I've ever heard coming off a screen.
Ultimately, Captive will likely not rank high in the Mendoza oeuvre, but I'm glad to have experienced it. I realize that's not much of a critical assessment, but I do think it directly addresses Mendoza's aims, as he stated them during the Berlinale press conference: "As artists, we have the obligation to give account of the problems in the world that surrounds us. A director who wants to be loyal to reality, and this is my case, should never take sides. This is want I have tried to do here. I went to where the incident happened in 2001 to conduct extensive research. I interviewed survivors, captives, but also people from the military camps, members of the separatist group in the film. I wanted testimonies from both sides to be as loyal as possible to reality."
Roundup. Ronald Bergan (House Next Door, thumbs down), Brian Clark (Twitch, mixed), Mike Goodridge (Screen, less than impressed), David Jenkins (Little White Lies, leaning towards favorable), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE, negative), Kevin B Lee (Press Play, F [!]), Bénédicte Prot (Cineuropa, quite positive) and Deborah Young (Hollywood Reporter, ho-hum).
Ratings. Screen International Jury Grid: Scott Foundas: 3 out of 4 stars; Derek Malcolm (Evening Standard): 2; Nick James (Sight & Sound): 2; Tim Robey (Telegraph): 3; Jose Carlos Avellar (Escrevercinema.com): big black X, meaning "bomb"; Bo Green Jensen (Weekendavisen Berlinske): 3; Jan Schulz-Ojala (Tagesspiegel): 1; Screen itself: 2.
Der Tagesspiegel: Verena Lueken (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung): "bearable"; Daniel Sander (Spiegel): "good"; Cristina Nord (die taz): "bearable"; Katja Nicodemus (Die Zeit): "bearable"; Schulz-Ojala: "weak."
Updates, 2/20: "Not as putatively shocking as Kinatay," writes Guy Lodge at In Contention, "the film is, in its own way, an equal endurance test, with a generous, not-unfelt running time and unnervingly consistent pacing mirroring the victims' own indefinite captivity…. Mendoza's a ferocious attack auteur whose previous films (most recently, the surprisingly thoughtful old-age study Lola) deserved greater international arthouse exposure; here's hoping his well-judged alliance with Huppert brings it."
At the Playlist, Jessica Kiang gives Captive an A- and interviews Huppert and Mendoza.
More from Théodora Olivi in Independencia.