Inspired by the 2001 Dos Palmas kidnapping of foreign tourists and missionaries by the Islamic separatist group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Philipino director Brillante Mendoza (Kinatay, Serbis) Captive excruciatingly follows the twenty hostages as they are dragged at gunpoint from their hotel, spirited onto a fishing boat and led through various towns and jungles for over a year. Isabelle Huppert, the film’s only recognizable star, headed the Cannes Film Festival Jury that awarded Mendoza best director for Kinatay in 2009. She is the closest thing that the film has to a center of consciousness, insisting to stop and bury a Filipino missionary who has died in the jungle, befriending an angry and wounded twelve year-old kidnapper and repeatedly standing up to the captors’ revolting behavior towards the nurses they have snatched from a village hospital after a shoot-out with the military.
Mendoza made the film without a fixed screenplay, preferring instead to work day-to-day, improvising in the jungle with his dedicated actors and crew. Watching the 122-minute-long film, one wishes he had not been so opposed to using a script. The hostage-taking, the very first scene, is superbly shot and edited and grabs you immediately. Mendoza, alas, quickly loses his grip on his material (and his audience) as his film devolves into an overly long ordeal of trudging through the endless wild. Mendoza is fond of mixing in footage of nature at its most beautiful and at its cruelest. The camera lingers unnecessarily on a bird that is eaten by a snake. Huppert look up to see a brilliantly-colored bird flapping its majestic wings, just shortly before her rescue. There are many creeping and crawling things in the jungle–leeches, scorpions, hornets–and Mendoza labors unsuccessfully to achieve a balance between the “Heart of Darkness” and Dog Day Afternoon motifs at play. For all its raw energy and determined gaze, Captive is less than captivating.