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Review: Brillante takes the pulpit in 'Captive'

Posted at | Updated as of 09/06/12 1:20 AM

MANILA, Philippines – "Captive" is Brillante Mendoza’s most political work to date, interpreting the kidnapping of several vacationers by Abu Sayyaf members from their resort in Palawan and their months-long hostage deep within the jungles of Basilan.

Mendoza has always used the Philippines’ ills as backdrop for his sometimes heart-wrenching but mostly gut-wrenching films. "Masahista" (2005), "Foster Child" (2007), "Tirador" (2007), "Serbis" (2008), "Kinatay" (2009) and "Lola" (2009) are all set against decay and poverty, with Mendoza exploring the intertwinement of such deplorable situations with human behavior, how it forces social norms and morals either temporarily or permanently out of the framework of survival.

Like Lino Brocka before him, Mendoza is being revered not for how he sincerely depicts humanity with all its faults and misgivings, but for the more convenient of his traits, which is to expose cinematically the base conditions of Philippine society.

I believe this has led Mendoza into the same trap which Brocka found himself in when he ventured into more blatantly political fare like "Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim" (1985) and "Orapronobis" (1989), exposing to the world, through the prestigious film festivals, the inutility of local institutions that inevitably create the dilemmas their cinematic characters face.

There seems to be an abandonment of the profound examinations of human struggle in exchange for the convenience of plain reportage. More alarming is that Mendoza seems to believe that it is his advocacy as a filmmaker to thresh out reality from the escapist limitations of celluloid, forcing him to push the envelope further from merely glossing over the graveness of the Philippine social condition through his delicate human stories to putting the social condition to the forefront.

"Captive" prominently displays this movement by Mendoza to mistake his weakness as an inert but brash advocate as his strength, eclipsing his real strength as a director, which is his ability to observe and portray our very fickle humanity.

The film’s best parts are when the outside world, the world Mendoza so excitedly depicts through visual slogans delivering religious hate and military ineptitude, are forgotten and the captives and their kidnappers are depicted away from the circumstance that they have found themselves trapped in.

In those scenes, Mendoza weaves little stories, tales that are not unfamiliar because notwithstanding the strangeness of their settings, these stories are so deeply entrenched to what the most ordinary of humans are capable of. The tiniest of gestures, the surprising exchanges of biting dialogue, both the urgent and non-urgent interactions among and between the victims and their victimizers add lightness to Mendoza’s lofty but misplaced endeavor.

Absent the propagandizing, the film finally allows its actors, most importantly Isabelle Huppert, who plays one of the kidnapped victims, the flexibility to flesh out their characters, who on the grander scale of Mendoza’s vision, seem to be just pawns in the overextended network of corruption that is the Philippines.

A handout still image shows actors Isabelle Huppert and Rustica Carpio in a scene from the film "Captive" by director Brillante Mendoza, showing in competition at the 62nd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin. The Berlinale runs from February 9  to 19. Photo from Reuters

However, Mendoza is also able to showcase his mettle as a director in those quieter moments. Where in the scenes where war is shown, violence is paraded, and intolerance is brandished, Mendoza seems to be channeling a desire for charmless grandiosity, especially with his armaments of explosions and spectacular gunfights, all of which are almost always absent in cash-strapped Philippine filmmaking. In the quieter scenes, he displays his capacity for compassion and understanding of the ability of men and women to be both kind and depraved.

While "Captive" clearly ambitions discourse on the troubles of Mindanao, it only succeeds in forwarding a concept of the conflict that is problematic in the way it is depicted and from which perspective it is depicted from. Mendoza’s take on the conflict is undoubtedly taken from an outsider’s point of view.

The film’s politics is hard to pinpoint precisely because it is draped in inconsistencies and ornamented with cues that are meant to agitate. Bibles are thrown into the sea. Christian icons are destroyed. Muslim captors scream their lungs out, praising Allah, as the news about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center are reported from their transistor radio, unmindful of the queries about the number of people who perished. It paints a picture of a religion that is either the proponent of intolerance or a harsh misunderstanding of a people.

The problem lies in the fact that this black and white approach in portraying the conflict is ultimately dangerous, as it disenfranchises an entire ideology that deserves more than the token shades of fair humanity that Mendoza gives its champions.

In the end, "Captive" is a film only proves Mendoza’s ability to mount productions that are bigger than what he usually does. It still manages to astound as there are some gems of scenes, mostly involving Huppert struggling physically and emotionally through her dire situation, that succeed in mesmerizing and bewildering.

Unfortunately, the bad taste of the film’s erratic and possibly damaging posturing counters most of its merits.

"Captive" is shown in cinemas at Greenbelt and SM malls.

Francis Joseph Cruz is a lawyer and critic. You can follow his blog "Lessons from the School of Inattention." (http://oggsmoggs.blogspot.com/)