On paper, Captive should have been the moment where Filipino director Brillante Mendoza, a divisive but respected figure in the art house and festival circuit thanks to his vibrant, low-budget stories of the modern day Philippines, moved up the ladder. Produced with extensive European financing and featuring bonafide star Isabelle Huppert as the nominal lead, Captive is based on the real-life hostage-taking by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Muslim group Abu Sayyaf at a Filipino resort in 2001, an ordeal that lasted for a year as the party traveled around the country's islands followed by government troops (apparently little interested in the fate of the hostages). Yet, upon its unveiling at the 2012 Berlinale, Captive bewildered pretty much everyone with its looping, loping approach to narrative and Ms. Huppert's dilution in an ensemble cast - which is probably what Mr. Mendoza, who is also known for the abrupt mood and theme changes from film to film, was aiming at all along.

     The film's title is programmatic in itself, and so is its construction (one of its scribes being Filipino journalist Arlyn Dela Cruz, who covered the case back in 2001 and appears briefly as herself in a couple of scenes). There is little or no context or reason for the hostage-taking given, other than what is perceived as the story unfolds, and the viewer is pretty much placed in the same circumstances of the hostages held for ransom, "captive" and kept in constant movement through the jungle, time effectively losing all meaning. In so doing, Mr. Mendoza creates a languid, feverish dream-state as the world recedes and life becomes subordinate to the apparently random laws of the jungle, as the recurring (and very Herzogian) inserts of animals going about their ways suggest. That sense of dream-state, of being stuck in an out-of-time limbo, is the strongest achievement and also the weakest link of Captive: it's what gives the film both its quasi-hypnotic allure and its slog-like weariness, the sense of being stuck in a treadmill with no exit in sight that can be simultaneously peaceful and nerve-wracking.

     Used as an anchor that will reassure the viewer, Ms. Huppert plays a French missionary who is one of the few foreign nationals among the hostages, and it's not difficult to see that the challenge for this most intense and intelligent of actresses was to play against type as someone forced to relinquish all control and go with the flow. It seems, though, that Mr. Mendoza himself ended up letting go of some of his control over the project, stuck between his desire to "zoom out" and make a "statement picture" about an important subject and his tendency to close in on smaller, personal stories that work as fractal mirrors of a larger tale. That uncertainty, though in some ways appropriately inherent to the tale, ends up as well working against the project, since the film seems to drift along on that dream-state alongside its cast and characters when it should be leading them towards the bitterly ironic dénouement.

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Angel Aquino, Bea Garcia, B. J. Go, Cheryl Ramos, Elizabeth Ty Chuan, Jelyn Nataly Chong, Jon Achaval, Kathy Mulville, Madeleine Nicolas, Marc Zanetta, Marinela Lumeran, Mon Confiado, Neil Ryan Sese, Perry Dizon, Pieter Overbeeke, Raymond Bagatsing, Rustica Carpio, Sid Lucero, Timothy Mabalot
Director: Brillante Ma. Mendoza
Screenplay: Mr. Mendoza, Patrick Bancarel, Boots Agbayani Pastor, Arlyn Dela Cruz
Cinematography: Odyssey Flores  (colour)
Music: Teresa Barrozo
Art directors: Simon Legré, Benjamin Padero
Costumes: Judy Shrewsbury
Editors: Yves Deschamps, Gilles Fargout, Kats Serraon
Producer: Didier Costet (Swift Productions, ARTE France Cinéma, Centerstage Productions Philippines, B. A. Produktion and Studio Eight Films in association with Films Distribution, Appaloosa Films and Unlimited)
France/Philippines/Germany/United Kingdom, 2011, 122 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14 (Lisbon), April 3rd 2013


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