In South America, March indeed came in like a lion. The month opened on the possibility of war between Venezuela and Colombia. FARC (Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) freed four hostages to Venezuelan officials in February, reuniting them with their families in Caracas. It was the second unilateral release by FARC this year. Kidnapping seems to pay. However, when Colombian military forces executed a FARC member in Ecuador, killing 24 guerrillas and illegally crossing international boundaries, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez objected violently. He closed the Colombian embassy in Caracas and ordered troops to the border with Colombia. Chavez is a supporter of FARC, a left-wing terrorist group. If FARC is anything like the way some of its members are depicted in Jose Antonio Negret’s film Towards Darkness, then Chavez is a more dangerous man than we think.
Hacia la Oscuridad, as Negret’s film is known in Spanish, is inspired by true events, events that played close to the heart of the writer-director. Two members of his family were kidnapped, ransom was paid, and only one hostage was freed—leading to a nationwide manhunt by Special Forces to find the other. A year later, another member of Negret’s family was kidnapped and murdered. His film is motivated by those tragic events.
Negret notes that someone is kidnapped every three hours in Colombia. One such abduction is described in this film, particularly the impact on the victim’s family and on people who are hired to find and kill the criminals, thereby freeing the hostage. José Gutierrez (Roberto Urbana), shown in the midst of an affair he enjoys in the States where he is a student of photography, returns to his native Colombia for a visit with his family. Taking up with a previous girlfriend, Luiza Montero (America Ferrera of TV’s “Ugly Betty”), he is punched outside a dance hall, driven away to a FARC hideout, bound and gagged. His banker father, Carlos Gutierrez (Tony Plana), is told to come up with half a million dollars in pesos by a 12 noon deadline.
We learn that the kidnappers are desperate for money owed to an overlord in the organization for having messed up a previous project. Strangely enough, though Manuel (Carlos Valencia), a nasty piece of work, tells a confederate that it’s not about the money but about land that was stolen, he does not describe for us in the audience exactly what the government did to this property that makes him full of hate, thirsting for revenge. The noon deadline is a firm one, because FARC believes operatives are at work to find the hostage, as in fact they are. Carlos, borrowing the money from a drug dealer in return for giving the criminal free access to shady banking schemes, has brought in American FBI veteran Charlie Bain (David Sutcliffe), together with John King (William Atherton) and Victor Rami (Cameron Daddo), to stage a rescue attempt in the rain-forest warehouse where the victim is kept.
The film is meant to be a heart-stopper but does not succeed as the director had hoped, for several reasons. One is the aforementioned vague motive of the kidnappers and the group they work for, details that could have given some needed depth to the story. A second, the principal problem, is that for reasons known only to Negret, a straight narrative style is upended in favor of a dizzying series of flashbacks and flash-forwards which serve to confuse the audience and to subvert the director’s intention. While movies do not have to subscribe to a straightforward narrative that gets us from A to Z, a single flashback would have sufficed if the filmmakers were really determined to be arty. This particular story could have walked the conventional path from beginning to end without losing credibility, even if that option meant that Towards Darkness would simply follow the usual pattern of race-against-the-clock thrillers. Costa-Gavras knew how to do such a film. State of Siege, about a political assassination by Tupamaro guerrillas in Uruguay, may be one-sided, as that director is on the far left politically, but the picture starring Yves Montand is a true nail-biter.