Watching “Secuestro Express” is like swimming in sewage for an hour and a half–which may be the intention behind Jonathan Jakubowicz’s film, but is still neither a terribly pleasurable or edifying experience. This is a raw, violent account of a kidnapping in Caracas–a common occurrence, it appears, in Venezuela’s dangerous capital–and it certainly succeeds in making one feel as trapped as the well-to-do victims (and, in a quite different way, their equally trapped captors, brought up as they were in the city’s horrifying slums). But the movie’s unrelieved grimness and brutality will be more than most people will care to take.
The story’s a very simple one. A young, rich, and engaged couple, Carla (Mia Maestro) and Martin (Jean Paul Leroux), are snatched after a night on the town by a trio of thugs–Trace (Carlos Julio Molina), Budu (Pedro Perez) and Niga (Carlos Madera). The crooks threaten the duo as they drive to a hideout, force them to withdraw cash from an ATM (in the process killing another would-be thief virtually as an afterthought), and call their fathers (hers is a doctor played by Ruben Blades) demanding ransom. In the course of the night strong differences appear on either side: Martin shows himself totally unsympathetic to the plight of the poor classes from which the criminals come, while Carla has a social conscience. On the other hand, the explosive Budu is restrained by the more rational Trace. There’s also a subplot involving a flashy drug-dealer the kidnappers visit to score.
Jakubowicz certainly manages to approximate the frenzy and fear that the victims of this crime, so endemic in Latin America, experience. His use of gritty, hand-held video camerawork and adoption of the couple’s perspective (one shot from Martin’s viewpoint is particularly harrowing) make for a viscerally powerful ninety minutes, and he coaxes from the cast performances of considerable vividness and energy. He’s also adept in capturing the squalor of the settings and the extent of the official corruption that nurtures crime–every time a policeman appears in the course of the picture, he’s as dangerous as any of the kidnappers. But there are important aspects of “Secuestro Express” that ring false and undermine the impact. The most egregious is the drug-dealer episode, which turns out to involve not only a coincidence that strains credulity (and wrecks the sense of realism the script has until that point so carefully built), but also a casual streak of homophobia, apparent throughout the film, that in many respects is as ugly as the brutality of the crime itself. Even the garish, hyperkinetic, in-your-face style, while initially eye-catching, comes to seem stridently artificial after awhile, undermining the sense of authenticity instead of accentuating it.
One things is absolutely certain. Watching “Secuestro Express” will surely cause you to scratch Caracas off your list of possible vacation destinations.