Dir: Jonathan Jakubowicz, 2005, Venezuela, 88mins
Cast: Mía Maestro, Rubén Blades, Carlos Julio Molina, Pedro Perez, Carlos Madera, Jean Paul Leroux
Review by Kevin Holmes
To truly gauge the impact and relevance of this film, it’s important to understand the political, economical and social climate that it comes from. Venezuela has seen major economical and social upheavals over the past few years, from economically crippling national strikes over oil to Presidential referendums. When this movie was being filmed, Venezuela was having a massive social explosion, with demonstrations taking place on the streets of the country’s capital, Caracas. In the midst of all this anarchy, Jakubowicz - in the city that was his birthplace - was filming this, his first feature. Caracas is also home to the sprawling slums that surround the city and are full of people living in abject poverty, the social divide between rich and poor in the country being immense.
With this in mind, we come to the film itself, an unrelenting attack on the senses that deals with the so-called ‘express kidnappings’ (secuestro means kidnap), that happen in Caracas and throughout Latin America. They are executed quickly and target the young, rich clubbers that descend on the city at the weekends from their posh apartments in the hills. It’s a terrifying prospect and the film conveys this with its frantic, kinetic camera work, never allowing you to fully relax, making the viewer feel like we ourselves have gone through this harrowing and nightmarish experience. Right from the start of the movie, we are placed in the hostages’ position with a grainy POV shot (the whole film is shot on DVCAM, adding that sought-after authenticity) of one of the kidnappers. Well, we presume it is, but all we can see are some lips moving and a Latin-American voice asking us if we’ve ever played ‘Venezuelan Roulette’, the macabre conclusion of which we will find out later on.
From this opening gambit, the director plays his own game of roulette - albeit with our emotions - bouncing them from black to red before they tumble off the table and shatter on the floor. He whisks us through the night and into the following morning, following the kidnappers, the hostages and the fathers who will be paying the ransom. Casual drug taking, homosexual revelations, corrupt police/army officers, attempted rapes, beatings, shootings, even emotional debating on the city’s social divide are all par for the course. All this trauma could become too much, but the film is interspersed with black humour and moments of light-hearted capture-bonding between kidnapper and victim that help lighten the film’s heavy load. For some this may prove too much and they may be too terrified to laugh, but it does resonate well and doesn’t detract from the horrifying spectacle or social message that the film tries to convey.
It’s produced by Elizabeth Avellán - another native of Caracas and long-time associate and producer of Robert Rodriguez - and it shows, from the Tarantinoesque freeze frames recalling the kidnappers’ names and misdemeanours to the blackly comic violence and bad-boy gangsters. Sometimes the film feels like it doesn’t know which way to play the problems it raises - as darkly comic or serious and threatening - so it chooses both, which does, fortunately, work most of the time. The film is further evidence of the burgeoning talent coming out from this region of the world and, for now, the Latin-American cinema movement just keeps on trucking, showing the American market what you can do with some raw talent, a great cast and some visceral, feverish directing.
While the film might not be to everyone’s taste - some may see its jarring and violent outbursts as mere shock tactics - it does raise an important issue, one that I wasn’t aware of and I doubt many are. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent, gritty drama and is filled with strong performances from the cast. The moralising may be a bit confused at times and perhaps over-simplified, but it’s a great debut and a sure sign of the talent of this young director. I just doubt it’ll do the Venezuelan tourist industry much good.
Discuss this film here