With a raw, visceral immediacy matched by the bluntness of its political imperatives, Brillante Mendoza’s “Captive” forcefully dramatizes the 2001-02 Dos Palmas hostage crisis, in which Islamic separatists kidnapped 20 guests from a resort in the southern Philippines. Capturing a terrifying 12-month ordeal to harrowing if finally enervating effect, the film exerts a queasy power that gradually gives way to lumbering issues of government indifference in this pre- and post-9/11 tragedy. Isabelle Huppert’s performance as one of the abductees will serve as a key entry point into this tough, unimpeachably serious-minded work for Mendoza’s arthouse devotees beyond the fest circuit.
Mendoza drew inspiration chiefly from the Dos Palmas affair but also researched numerous other kidnappings perpetrated by the violent Abu Sayyaf Group in its battle for the independence of the Philippine island of Mindanao. Working in a mode of hectic, docu-style realism, the film (scripted by Mendoza, Patrick Bancarel, Boots Agbayani Pastor and Arlyn de la Cruz) plunges the viewer directly into the tumult as armed ASG fighters, led by Abu Saiyed (Raymond Bagatsing), blast their way into guests’ rooms at the Dos Palmas resort on the island of Palawan.
Among the hostages are French social worker Therese Bourgoine (Huppert) and her Filipina friend Soledad (Rustica Carpio), who cling to each other as the men force their captives into a fishing boat and take them hundreds of miles across the Sulu Sea to another island, Basilan. The film skips ahead days at a time as the ASG and their hostages seek temporary shelter at a hospital in the city of Lamitan, but when they come under indiscriminate fire from the Philippine military, they’re forced to flee into the jungle, eventually setting up camp in the mountains.
A cinematic moralist who revels in dense, teeming portraits of situational chaos (“Serbis,” “Kinatay”), Mendoza can be confrontational, even assaultive, in his choice of subject matter and method of execution. Perhaps the director’s signature touch here is an extraordinarily realistic, possibly unsimulated closeup shot of a woman giving birth, from crowning to delivery, goosing the already frenzied action during the hospital attack sequence and perhaps making the wry point that life persists even amid mass slaughter.
And while the journey it documents is painful and arduous, “Captive” is not exactly an exercise in unmodulated misery, largely because the perils its characters face are so multifarious. They must avoid getting caught in the crossfire and fend off leeches, hornets, scorpions and other human-hostile wildlife. Their captors, of course, remain their most dangerously unpredictable enemies. Not without a sense of humor or practical decency, offering their victims protection from starvation and the unforgiving elements, the ASG men are also not afraid to behead one of their abductees without warning, or to choose brides for themselves from among the single women in the group.
Partly due to this latter outrage, the women gradually assume a position of moral authority here, led by a fierce Huppert as one of the few hostages not afraid to fight back on occasion. Despite Mendoza’s determination to capture a present-tense snapshot of a situation with no specific point of view, the camera cannot help but gravitate toward Huppert’s dirtied, bloodied face, which offers viewers the comfort of something familiar to latch onto in this madness, even while the actress’ embodiment of desperation and resilience meshes well with her fellow thesps.
As long as its characters are on the move, “Captive” sustains considerable urgency; d.p. Odyssey Flores’ hurtling handheld camerawork picks up details in a flash, while editors Yves Deschamps, Gilles Fargout, Kats Serraon work in a fleet, roving style that often cuts away before individual horrors can fully register. But as the scene transitions stretch from days to months and the chase becomes a waiting game, viewers may come to identify perhaps too closely with the hostages’ sense of limbo.
It doesn’t help that the film’s procedural verisimilitude is compromised somewhat by its eventual need to explain and indict, as the hostages realize they’re up against the apathy of their respective home countries, unwilling to negotiate with or pay ransoms to terrorists. Mendoza also makes a point of having the hostages hear about the Sept. 11 attacks on the radio, unsubtly if necessarily establishing that this is one of many stories that anticipated 9/11 and were ultimately drowned out by it.
Story was shot in sequence so as to capture the sufferings of those who experienced it with total authenticity, and on that level it’s entirely successful, even though the island of Luzon filled in for Palawan, Basilan and other locations identified onscreen. Flores’ HD imagery finds a rough, unpicturesque beauty in the jungle settings, and Teresa Barrozo’s score subtly backgrounds the action with a chilling, ambient drone.