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Sequestro -- Film Review

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NEW YORK -- A vivid exploration of Latin America's kidnapping epidemic, "Sequestro" benefits from multiple viewpoints and surprising access. Its glossily dramatic, first-person production make it a better fit for true-crime television than arthouses, but subtitles limit potential in that arena. The audience it manages to reach will find it as vicerally satisfying as a doc on this subject can be.

Brazilian filmmaker Jorge W. Atalla begins with terrifying understatement: As we stare at a black screen, a kidnapper squawks threats at his victim's family in a high-pitched fake voice that would be comic if the speaker weren't threatening, "you'll get your father back in pieces." Atalla will follow this case through to its resolution, checking in with the frightened family during the film as they wait out the tedium of negotiation. We see first-hand how kidnappers terrorize the public by being in no hurry to name or receive their ransom.

Atalla gives us a bit of background on the phenomenon, with info-graphic titles and short interviews explaining how political shifts triggered this now apolitical crime wave. He also introduces us to some former victims, whose tales of spending up to three months in captivity are moving and scary.

But the meat of his film is the four years he spent with Sao Paulo's anti-kidnapping squad, an impressively professional crew that gives calm advice to victim's families and charges boldly into slums to find their loved ones. Atalla's cameramen follow these raids like a "Cops" crew on much more dangerous ground, and they're rewarded with stunning scenes: a young kidnapper being arrested while his devastated mother begs him to "say it's not true"; a twentysomething victim who is so shocked to be rescued he seems on the verge of an on-camera seizure; a grisly dig to find the body of a victim who wasn't so lucky.

Quick-paced editing never stays at one scene for long, although the film employs a couple of uneccessary effects to rev-up action footage. But the tempo does allow Atalla to squeeze many perspectives into a doc that's barely an hour and a half, showing viewers just how much kidnapping has altered the psychological landscape in countries like Brazil.

Opened Friday, Sept. 10 (Paradigm Pictures)
Production companies: Yukon Filmworks, Midmix Entertainment in association with Filmland Intl. and Paradigm Pictures
Director: Jorge W. Atalla
Screenwriter: Atalla, Caio Cavechini
Executive producers: Christian Gudegast, Frederico Lapenda
Producers: Atalla, Alexandre Moreira Leite
Director of photography: Dario Dezem, Arturo Querzoli
Music: Tuta Aquino, Fernando Pinheiro, Vitor Rocha
Editors: Atalla, Marcelo Bala, Marcelo Moraes
No rating, 96 minutes