- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006

The most stunning display of precocious cinematic talent in 2005 belonged to the Venezuelan crime thriller “Secuestro Express.” This topical-visceral spellbinder and nerve-racker, now available in a usefully enhanced DVD edition from Miramax Home Entertainment, was shot on the streets of Caracas in 2002 by Jonathan Jakubowicz, an extremely precocious 24 at the time.

The director seems to reinvent naturalism while exploiting the immediate tension and far-reaching social implications of a kidnapping that leaves the victims, a fashionably hedonistic young couple called Carla and Martin, at the mercy of three gunmen — Budu, Niga and Trece — who demand $20,000 in cash. The thugs hope to complete the transaction in a matter of hours.

The title borrows a popular term for hit-and-run capers in which victims are chosen on impulse because they look posh as well as vulnerable. It’s assumed that affluent hostages or their families will cough up relatively modest sums rather than inform the police, often considered as avaricious and unreliable as professional hoods. The practice is described by the filmmaker himself as “the fastest-growing crime in Latin America.”

Mr. Jakubowicz aims to expose a common humanity, nationality and insecurity without being soft enough to envision an overnight change of outlook between the privileged and criminal elements of the city. The filmmaker’s semicrusading motives may be difficult to appreciate while the movie is taking you on a nightmarish, sarcastic joy ride across high and low cross sections of Caracas. His intentions are made explicit in the new DVD’s director’s commentary track.

The director’s lowdown proves exceptionally edifying in this case. On the lighter side, Mr. Jakubowicz points out the cameo appearances by members of his family, including his brother, a physician, and his father, an engineer, who are credited as co-producers. On the technical side, he explains why digital video cameras are his chosen recording instruments — and why a vigilant tempo and active intercutting are essential to prevent video from looking “too much like video.” On the gallows-humor side, Mr. Jakubowicz also points out scenes shot in neighborhoods he considers a menace to unwary tourists.

A close-knit and resourceful project, “Secuestro Express” was made for about $500,000 and acquired by Miramax after a showcase at the American Film Institute Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2004. During the eight weeks the production traversed Caracas, the city was enduring an oil strike and a climate of near civil war between partisans and opponents of the current strongman, Hugo Chavez.

Mr. Jakubowicz pleads neutrality in this conflict, preferring to argue for a social change of heart aimed principally at his own generation. He believes the country was confronting “a point of no return” and hoped to underline that peril with “Secuestro Express.” The DVD commentary volunteers an ominous survey of his beloved but treacherous Caracas, which he credits with 14,000 violent deaths annually, noting that this casualty rate beggars combat fatalities in the Balkans or the Middle East.

Although “Secuestro Express” seemed to be a likely art-house sensation after the movie was press-screened in Washington last July, it never even opened. It didn’t open in a lot of presumably ripe metropolitan markets, places where the success of “City of God” or “Amores Perros” a few years earlier would seem to have promised a rousing welcome.

In a phone interview with the director last summer, I asked if he was apprehensive about the divorce proceedings underway between Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein and the Walt Disney Co., their estranged corporate partner. Mr. Jakubowicz expressed “complete confidence” in the Weinsteins and felt that a successful run would also persuade a new management that “Express” was an explosive asset. Instead, it was allowed to do a disappearing act.

I’m still trying to discover why. It’s not as if depraved thrillers — especially ones with a Miramax pedigree — are a novelty. Perhaps Venezuelan politics had an inhibiting effect as Mr. Chavez grew more demagogic and relentlessly anti-American. Perhaps the sheer intensity of the narrative — and the abuse dished out to the captive heroine, Carla, played by the gorgeous Mia Maestro before she became a cast member on the “Alias” series — was unbearable for spectators in test engagements.

For now, last year’s “Secuestro” blackout remains an imponderable, but the movie loses little sting on DVD while adding an abundance of first-hand information.

When the best movies of 2005 are eventually sorted out for a discriminating posterity, “Secuestro Express” will be joined by Bahman Ghobadi’s extraordinary fable of war orphans in Kurdish Iraq, “Turtles Can Fly.” Fortunately, it did have adequate art-house exposure. Now available in a beautiful DVD transfer from MGM Home Entertainment, the film has not been supplemented in any respect. That’s definitely an oversight.

Sooner or later a commentary track from the adventurous and resourceful Mr. Ghobadi, an Iranian Kurd, will be indispensable. Admirers are bound to be curious about his settings and semidocumentary methods. He has made a contemporary war zone a peculiarly poetic and stirring source of hard-bitten observation and pathos. Where a city teeters on the abyss in “Secuestro Express,” a countryside of children is discovered in comparable jeopardy in “Turtles Can Fly.”

***1/2

TITLE: “Secuestro Express”

RATING: R (Systematic profanity and ominous atmosphere; occasional graphic violence and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz. Cinematography by David Chalker. Production design by Andres Zawisa. Editing by Ethan Maniquis. Musical supervision by Angelo Milli. In Spanish with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

DVD EDITION: Miramax Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.video.com/miramax

***1/2

TITLE: “Turtles Can Fly”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional graphic violence and sustained ominous atmosphere; content revolves around war orphans)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi. Cinematography by Shahriar Assadi. Music by Housein Alizadeh. In Kurdish with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

DVD EDITION: MGM Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.mgm.com/dvd

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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