Images from Secuestro Express
Immensity of Caracas slums.
Violent demonstrations in Caracas.
Inside the car Martin is hit.
Both the rich and the poor have families.
Radio host, “It’s 6 a.m. in the Bolivarian Republic of Marijuana.”
Martín’s car has been stolen.
Martín manages to escape.
The relation between Trece and Carla develops.
Budú attempts to rape Carla.
Martín is found by Dolor and brought back.
News of Martín’s comeback saves Carla from rape.
Carla's father paid the ransom and she is released in a deserted place.
Corrupt police "rescue" Carla and ...
... she is saved from rape by Trece once again.
Carla finally escapes.
Carla decides to bring the poor sick girl to her home.
The film starts with the intertitle “an incalculable number…just one of them” reproduced above. After this, we see extreme close-ups of a man talking about a Creole roulette (Russian roulette) game and a gun aimed at the camera and fired. The audience thus views this episode from the loser’s POV. A rapidly edited series of images of Caracas follows and provides a socio-political introduction to the protagonists: a wealthy young couple, Martín and Carla. Some of the images of this sequence include scenes of immense barrios (slums), highrises in downtown Caracas, rich people playing golf,and young marginal boys fighting and dealing drugs.
Intertwined with these, there are images of violent demonstrations in the streets of Caracas, an image of Simón Bolívar and a very controversial extract of archive footage that shows Chávez supporters shooting from a bridge in April 11, 2002, when the brief coup against President Chávez is about to take place. Documentaries like The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Kim Bartley, Ireland 2003) or Puente Llaguno, Claves de Una Masacre/ Llaguno Bridge, Keys to a Massacre (Ángel Palacios, Venezuela, 2004) were produced to interpret this incident, that has generated much controversy. Basically, the opposition claims that Chávez supporters were firing at members of the opposition, and the private media presented it like this, whereas the President's supporters argue that the people in this bridge were protecting themselves from sniper fire. The man that is seen firing from the bridge, Rafael Cabrices, died of a heart attack while the legal proceedings to have his image removed from the film were in progress. Situating this image in the middle of a series of images that denote violence could be interpreted as a sign of support for the former interpretation, and this is in fact how the Chávez’s government interpreted this inclusion.
While Martín and Carla are at a disco, a criminal gang specialized in “express” kidnapping is preparing for a job. In this way, the first seven minutes of the film show the city, the main characters (Martín and Carla, on the one hand, and the four kidnappers—Budú, Dolor, Trece and Niga—on the other) and preparations for the crime. Speeded-up scenes alternate with stills and we see visually key words describing features of the main characters, as if introducing characters in a video game. This combination of stills and moving images edited at different paces produces an effect of fits and starts, of sudden changes of rhythm, and contributes to creating expectation at the same time that it gives an impression of art-house filmmaking or an MTV video.
The couple on the street have managed to attract the attention of the kidnappers who follow them into a pharmacy; we hear Martín express his disagreement with Carla’s intention to bring a poor sick child to live at her home. When they leave the pharmacy, Budú, Trece and Niga enter Martín’s car and Dolor leaves in another car. Inside Martín’s car, the kidnappers immediately call Carla’s father to demand a ransom. Inside the car, the assailants continue to beat up Martín and one phones Martín’s father, who is seen gambling at the casino when he receives the call.
Then several kidnappers make or receive calls from their families at the same time, and the screen splits to depict victims’ and kidnappers’ family members at the same level, visually rendering all of them as somehow equal. In addition, including the family life of the kidnappers arguably reveals their human side and softens the extremely negative perception that most viewers may have of them up to this point.
The radio announces that it is 6 a.m. when they arrive at an ATM to withdraw money. While Niga is watching out for passers-by, a thief attacks Martín as he is withdrawing money. Niga and the thief fight for the “prey,” which results in Niga shooting the other man dead.
When the bandits get the money, they head for a drug dealer, Marcelo. Marcelo is a homosexual drug dealer who also happens to be Martín’s supplier, but the kidnappers are not aware of this. Marcelo strikes a deal with the kidnappers so that he can “stay” with Martín for half an hour. Everybody in the room thinks that Marcelo wants to rape Martín, including Carla, who reacts strongly and has to be carried away and whose reaction encourages one of the group, Trece, to try to protect her.
The kidnappers leave with Carla and Marcelo helps Martín, but when the kidnappers realize that Martín’s car has been stolen, they have to return to Marcelo’s place earlier than expected. Once they return to Marcelo’s, they see Martín having sex with the drug dealer with obvious enjoyment. He clearly was not coerced. The observers react in disgust and the incident serves to unite Carla with the kidnappers.
The kidnappers take a car from Marcelo and put Martín in the trunk. Carla has more confidence in her captors and jokes and shares drugs with them. At one point they are stopped at a roadblock by a National Guard officer who interrogates them. The officer is unaware of the captive in the trunk, but suspects that the kidnappers have drugs and doesn’t let them continue their journey until the kidnappers manage to bribe him with a bag of cocaine.
A new incident that changes Martín’s fate occurs when he is taken out of the car and made to buy some expensive watches, presenting him with an opportunity to escape. This attempt is thwarted when he enters the taxi driven by Dolor and is brought back to the kidnappers. They decide to kill him inside the taxi’s trunk by playing Russian roulette. Before this happens and while Dolor is looking for Marcelo, Carla is taken to an old dingy high-rise. There, she develops a relationship with Trece as they talk and do drugs. Budú, however, has sinister motives in mind. He orders Trece to leave with the intention of raping the captive. Fortunately for Carla, when Budú is about to rape her, Niga comes with the news that Martín has been found and both kidnappers leave to play the Russian roulette to kill Martín.
Clearly both filmmakers are greatly concerned with the consequences of existing inequalities, particularly with the causes of class violence. But the films show different types of violence. Secuestro is concerned with a particular form of violence that undermines the quality of life of relatively wealthy people, not the underprivileged. The motives for express kidnapping are usually just financial; once the kidnappers receive the ransom, they run away. In other words, it is mostly the middle-class and the rich who live in fear of being kidnapped. Still, kidnapping is not a minor crime and does affect all sectors of the population. In contrast, the violence that preoccupies the director of La clase, José Antonio Varela, is a more collective violence and does not imply criminalization of the lower classes. Instead, the riots are a political response to a situation, not exclusively related to financial motives.
In her essay, “La ciudad de Caracas amor a muerte y Secuestro Express,” Belkis Suárez rightly indicates that Secuestro Express does depict class struggle. In this film, there are three major groups of people: the upper-middle class of Martín and Carla (perhaps also Trece), the corrupt policemen, and the subproletariat (Budú, Niga, Marcelo, Dolor). Similarly La clase has upper-middle class characters (Anselmo, Margarita), proletarians (Yuri, the other construction workers), corrupt policemen, and subproletarians to a much lesser extent (perhaps Edwin and other characters who populate the barrios without a “voice” here). [open endnotes in new window]
Both Secuestro and La clase try to avoid representing characters as just good or bad, but they only succeed to a certain extent. In Secuestro, the spectators are clearly guided to adopt the rich kid’s point of view. Viewers may feel aimed at and shot with a gun held by the kidnappers at the same time as Martín—the rich kid—is shot; the bullet seems aimed at the screen. Director Jonathan Jakubowicz, in one of the DVD extras, confirms this identification with the kidnapped, not the kidnappers:
Furthermore, the lower-class characters are introduced in a denigrating way. Presenting a character like Niga by having him shoot at the audience, labeling him with the words, “Ex Con, Religious, Killer,” and making him support the idea of raping and killing Carla is undoubtedly indicating the scripting of the character as a source of violence, not as a victim of inequalities. Some brief dialogue between Niga and Budú’s terminally ill daughter does not suffice to him seem like a human being with good and bad sides. Rather, viewers are encouraged to fear him and come to the conclusion that he is a monster. And the same applies to Budú and Dolor. The only character, Trece, whose good and bad sides are more balanced is curiously characterized as “middle class.”
La clase starts with images of a slaughterhouse and ends with images of Yuri and Tita looting a truck and carrying off a slaughtered animal after seeing how their friend Roger has been killed (slaughtered like an animal if we accept the association of images). This common metaphor was prominently used in the well-known story El Matadero (The Slaughterhouse) by Argentinean writer Esteban Echeverría as well as in Eisenstein’s Strike. Echeverría’s short story was written in 1839 but could not be published until 1871 due to political censorship. In his novel, Echeverría contrasts the brutal and ignorant masses of the “federales” with the educated middle class of “unitarios.” The masses of workers and supporters of the Rosas’ federal regime slaughter a “unitario” as they had just done with a bull. That novel is marked by the “narrator’s superior disgust for the “proletariat,” the barbarians.” However, for our present study, I would note that Jason Wilson also interprets Echeverría’s work as a “parable of on-going Argentine violence” which could be generalized to characterize Latin American violence. Furthermore, Wilson adds that The Slaughtherhouse and the story “La fiesta del monstruo,” written by Borges and Bioy Casares,
In terms of comparing novel and film, I would also have to note that Echeverría’s disgust for the proletariat stand in stark contrast with José Antonio Varela’s perceptions of the barrio dwellers: Roger, the man of African descent who is slaughtered like an animal at the end of La clase is a construction worker living in the slums and not a middle-class “unitario.” Despite these differences in characterizing the proletariat, I would note that this metaphor of the slaughter of dumb animals continues to provide effective imagery for representing irrational violence and class struggle in both The Slaughterhouse and La clase.
Between the two films, in La clase, the barrio residents are represented in much more depth than the upper classes with their two-dimensional idyllic figures, a contrast which will be reflected in the visual representations of the city too. Probably due to the fact that the two films belong to different genres (thriller and romantic drama) and to the creation of a claustrophobic atmosphere in Secuestro, this film seems to lack the social perspective of La clase. We do not see much beyond the kidnapping in Secuestro, whereas in La clase the characters’ milieu is well defined. We see a number of different environments as we observe the orchestra, the police taking action against youngsters, the sad state of public hospitals, the construction workers, and the riots in the street.
Drawing from Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas’ distinction between first, second and third cinema, I might classify Secuestro as first cinema practice since its aesthetic design and its conception as an entertainment product clearly follow Hollywood’s model. La clase, on the other hand, with its class struggle and identity-building themes, could be included in the group of third cinema. However, since both films emphasize class struggle with the intention of changing the society they intend to represent—one through a bourgeois approach and the other through a socialist approach—this previous classification of three types of cinema proves insufficient to understand the complexities of filmmaking as practiced in the polarized society of contemporary Venezuela. Such difficulty in applying Third Cinema as a concept here coincides with Zuzana Pick’s and Ruby Rich’s conviction:
Filmmakers concerned with questions of class often explore their concerns as much through cityscapes as characterization. Architecture and urban geography speak much about social relations and money. For example, because La clase deals with Tita’s dilemma choosing between a rich and poor life, the film’s locations show a city divided between the barrio (slum) and the urbanización (middle-class district/buildings). While most of the locations clearly identified with the middle-class are interiors, both interior and exterior shooting takes place in the barrio, which the film portrays in more depth. In addition, other shots of the barrio appear when Tita is thinking, externalizing Tita’s thought. The director tried to integrate images of the barrio and urbanizaciones organically into the story of La Clase, and the intersecting space is the theater where the musicians rehearse. At the theatre, Tita meets her friends Anselmo and Margarita. The theatre functions in this film as what Stavros Stavrides calls the threshold space. This author points out that
Graffiti and murals in the barrios of La Clase are also part of the cityscape. They are in fact, manifestations of its inhabitants’ political awareness. Sujatha Fernandes, in her recent study of the urban social movements of the barrios of Caracas, contends that
In contrast to this rich imagery, the cityscape that Secuestro Express uses to situate the story in a particular moment is presented in an isolated montage. The film’s presentation of a cityscape is not directly related to what happens to Carla and Martín. Secuestro takes place mostly inside interior spaces, especially the car and an abandoned building. While this effectively produces a claustrophobic atmosphere, it does not help the viewer understand the main characters’ social positions or political attitudes, such as their opinion on the growth of the barrios. In addition to this, the initial montage of the city seems intended to surprise and scare us by revealing the immensity of the slums. In addition, I interpreted the initial camera movement advancing from the slums to the high-rises of the city center as being like the movement of a predatory bird hunting its prey. In this sense, Secuestro portrays the barrio as a vast entity—aggressive and menacing.
A “realist” film does not portray the real world as if there were some unique “real world.” Previously, I have been trying to deconstruct Jakubowicz’s realist claims for Secuestro Express. And in an interesting contrast, La clase has no explicit reference to realism but its “story with a moral” provides an unquestionable impression of reality. Transposed to visual expression, this “moral” is seen in a wall full of graffiti: “the rich are counted,” “down with IMF mandates,” and “Christ is coming.” In La Clase this wall appears first in the background of the mise en scène and reappears later occupying the whole screen. And the social moral also appears in the dialogue, especially in the conversation between Tita and the priest, who is the director’s alter ego. Contemporary critics as well as audiences in the “first world” tend to disapprove of films with a focus on class, especially “films with a moral” such as La clase, and sometimes such films are labeled as propaganda. It is a liberal commonplace that class concerns do not promote artistic filmmaking. However, as seen in a comparison between La clase and Secuestro, the high level of class awareness of La clase lets it trace out social reality in more depth than Secuestro, with its fragmentation and isolation of different parts.