Thursday, November 16, 2006

FILM: Anatomy of a Kidnapping

"Impressions," TV Times, 9-15 July 1978


Those who could hardly wait for the long and lunatic intensity of Tell Her I Love Her to end in order to hotfoot it out of the double premiere night of the French Film Festival at the Rizal Theater and into the saner comfort of car, bus, jeep, or foot missed a psychological thriller finely wrought for any audience.

Andre Cayatte's The Anatomy of a Kidnapping, the second premiere-night offering, is a French cinematic masterpiece that acutely and delicately reduces an awesome tragedy to human size through impeccable acting, sensitive direction, and unusually deft cinematic blocking that almost passes for none. And even as The Anatomy of a Kidnapping detonates a shattering explosion that tears apart the fragile ties binding a family together, it also provides a satisfyingly surprising ending, a neat moral reckoning, the only possible solution to a dilemma of hate and despair.

The story is simple enough and truly human: the 7-year-old daughter of an auto repair shop owner and his wife is kidnapped after school while waiting for her mother to fetch her from the house of her piano teacher. The kidnapper calls the family by telephone, demanding ransom. The father informs the police, who almost succeed in tracing the origin of the call. Frightened, the kidnapper backs off. This sends mother and father into a frenzy. What will happen to their daughter? Frantic, the mother goes on French television, begging the kidnapper to call her, promising that nobody else will learn of his demands.

Tension brought about by uncertainty and doubt follows as the family waits for the kidnapper's call. Instructions finally arrive in the form of an unstamped letter inserted among the family's mail the next day. The mother is to drive alone down a road and retrieve a package by a relay station. The package, as it turns out, contains a walkie-talkie, through which the kidnapper gives his final instructions to the mother.

What the mother finds after following the instructions is a blue garbage bag, tied, lying in the middle of a deserted village road in the dark of night. Inside the garbage bag is her daughter--dead. She loads her daughter's lifeless body into the front seat of her car and covers it with a blanket. Dazed, her eyes blurring with tears, her mind obsessed only with the thought that she must bring her dead daughter home, she drives back to the city through a one-way street and straight into an oncoming car. As the people mill about, the mother is recognized. The police come, tear her unwillingly from her dead daughter, and subject her to the initial grilling. A crime has been committed: it is the law.

The law is heartless. The mother falls unconscious, unable any longer to bear her grief. The daughter's body is sent to the morgue for autopsy. The law also turns out to be perceptive. The autopsy shows that the daughter was killed only 30 minutes after she was kidnapped. The police lieutenant informs the mother that the kidnapper did not even touch the ransom money, that the kidnapper was not interested in the money at all, that he only wanted to witness that moment when she opened the blue garbage bag and saw her dead daughter. Did she reject any suitors, spurn any lovers? Does she have any enemies?

The mother's mind, anesthetized by grief, begins to function as if at the push of a button. The kidnapper must have known that the maid, gone to visit her sick mother for the day, would be unable to fetch the child from school. He must have been able to drop the unstamped letter into the mailbox without being noticed by the large crowd that had gathered since the night before in front of their house. He must have been known personally--trusted, even--by her daughter or she would have shouted and caught the attention of people in the streets. Who was he?

The film's climax is emotionally bloody, the denouement filled with despair. The mother thumps the kidnapper's chest with all the strength she could muster, in utter helplessness, bewilderment, anguish. But physical violence is hardly enough. His crime transcends humanity and the law. His punishment, like his crime, must be a personal one: she drives herself and the kidnapper straight to their common death.

As Madame Girard, the confused, grief-stricken mother, Annie Girardot is superb, shrewdly measuring out her powerhouse talent as each scene required, pointedly underplaying most of them, but always successfully catching and projecting the loss, the hurt, the puzzlement, the pained innocence. Only at the final scene, the confrontation with the kidnapper, does she allow her hurt to reach its angry edge, her weakness to strengthen into action, her pained innocence to suffer a memorably brutal, final death.

It is an eerie purgatory that director Cayette chooses for Madame Girard and the kidnapper. But his is not a cruel hand. While his pacing is brisk and energetic, it is not unfeeling and dry. He squeezes each emotion and dwells on each scene with great sensitivity and understanding. He notices and underlines humanizing details: an anxious Madame Girard is thrown off by studio lights and camera directions in the cold and professional television station, a weary Monsieur Girard falls asleep as soon as his back touches the bed and Madame Girard lifts his feet from the cold floor, terror and anxiety take equal hold of Madame Girard as she fearfully and uncertainly approaches the blue garbage bag in the middle of the deserted road.

Through it all, Cayette succeeds in making the obvious moving, the clich├ęs eloquent. And while he scours the depths of a family's anguish, in the end drawing from each parent his individual measure of human strength, he relates to all parents who, were fate equally inclined, could suffer from a similar cruelty.

The result is a film that seizes even as it softens us into an acceptance of the realities of life. Few Filipinos would have been able to escape its emotional grip, if only it had a bigger audience and wider exposure.

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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