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DANCER UPSTAIRS, THE (director: John Malkovich; screenwriter: from the novel by Nicholas Shakespeare; cinematographer: José Luis Alcaine; editor: Mario Battistel; music: Alberto Iglesias; cast: Javier Bardem (Rejas), Laura Morante (Yolanda), Juan Diego Botto (Sucre), Elvira Minguez (Llosa), Alexandra Lencastre (Sylvina), Oliver Cotton (General Merino), Abel Folk (Ezequiel/Duran), Luis Miguel Cintra (Calderon), Marie-Anne Berganza (Laura); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Andrés Vicente Gómez/John Malkovich; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2002-Spain/USA-in English)
“One of the most chilling political thrillers in years.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Dancer Upstairs is both a gripping political melodrama and a convincing love story. Javier Bardem stars as Agustin Rejas, a former lawyer who quits after the president-elect gets off on a statutory-rape case. He becomes an idealistic policeman in an unnamed Latin American country that is nearing collapse under a highly organized terrorist movement. Rejas is determined to pursue a career that has respect for the law, which he offers as his reason of job change. Rejas moves up the ranks by being efficient, and in the five year period we follow him he moves from a lowly border guard policeman to the undercover police captain in charge of finding the brutal guerrillas who randomly murder government officials and innocent civilians and blow up cafes and cause city blackouts. The terrorists celebrate their successes by dazzling firework displays seen throughout the city. At first, the terror was mainly in the remote mountain villages where the terrorist leader recruits consisted of the impoverished from the same remote area where the part Indian Rejas was raised, but the revolution has now moved to the capital where he works.

It was beautifully photographed by Jose Luis Alcaine, in the stunning mountains of Ecuador and in the cramped but colorful cities of Spain and Portugal.

The multi-talented actor John Malkovich makes his film debut as a director, though he has done directing before in the Chicago theater. Malkovich presents “Dancer” as an homage to the great Greek director Costa-Gavras (“Z”) and his political thriller State of Siege (1973), which is shown on a videotape and plays a role in the story. The Dancer Upstairs is based on the 1995 novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, which like this film mixes fact and fiction in its telling of the search for Abimael Guzman, leader of the Peruvian ‘Shining Path’ revolution; Guzman was caught in 1992 by a persistent detective who tracked him for 12 years. The film fictionalizes that tale and has the terrorist leader portrayed as a charismatic left-wing former philosophy professor who is enamored with both Mao and Kant, and has taken the revolutionary handle of Ezequiel (giving his messages a perverse biblical twist). His fanatical loyal supporters are mostly innocent looking young boys and girls who are willing to kill and die for the cause, as they without conscience terrorize the country with a rash of brutal murders and by stringing up dogs with their throats slit to street lampposts for public viewing with Maoist political messages tagged onto them as warnings about the right-wing government’s tyranny and declarations of how powerful a leader is Ezequiel.

Rejas is married to an attractive wife and has a precious little girl, who is taking ballet lessons. He is an intelligent, brooding and sensitive man struggling to keep his balance in a shaky middle-class marriage, where he’s bored with his nice but vain and empty wife whose idea of culture is to read excerpts from “The Bridges of Madison County” to her Book Club. Rejas is also hard-pressed to find meaning for his existence in a country where things are chaotic and corrupt. The Bardem character suffers alone because he seems so detached, when the truth is that he suffers so much because he really cares and finds it grating to rise to a position of power in a country that is so corrupt. Rejas’ facial expressions reflect the pain of his countrymen at all the violence and unnecessary suffering and hunger, as the lead detective is frustrated in his private thoughts as he tries to figure out the shadowy Ezequiel’s true identity and what his group wants. When the violence continues Rejas’ power is usurped by the president, who declares martial law and places him under the military as now their tanks and paramilitary are seen everywhere. This is a bitter pill for Rejas to swallow because his father lost his coffee farm to the military in the name of the people, and Rejas now feels trapped as he questions his loyalty to both his family and his corrupt government. His future seems to be tied to capturing the terrorist and hoping his daughter can live in a better country that he can help reform from within.

When Rejas goes to pick up his daughter at her ballet class, he meets the attractive teacher Yolanda and falls in love without trying to. Their romance slowly builds, as they meet again by chance and he quietly shows how much he loves her. Yolanda is played by Laura Morante, who gives a sparkling performance as the seemingly cultured, earthy and soft-hearted woman who walks the modest man through a moral mine field. Yolanda is someone Rejas imagines as his soul mate. It also soon becomes apparent she might have some connection with the revolutionaries, as Rejas and his team of four loyal undercover detectives keep gathering clues on Ezequiel and begin to close in on him through surveillance of his contacts.

Malkovich has made some strange choices that can be questioned but not faulted, such as an all Spanish and Latin cast speaking in an English that is not always understandable. But, nevertheless, the film works so well because the story is so alive with tension and it is so relevant for us in America living through Bush’s war of terrorism (Need I say more!) to understand what the loss of our civil rights means. Everyone in the story has either lost something (their native tongue speaks to that) or wants to destroy something (the revolutionaries) or stolen something (the government), which is gloomy but fitting for the film’s somber mood about the hopeless conditions.

The film’s most memorable shot comes at the conclusion, as a weary Rejas has done all he could to arrest the terrorist and relaxes for the first time as he watches through a theater glass door his daughter dance as a reflection of her dancing is repeated mirror-like a number of times while in his head there is a whole series of unseen emotions going off like a fireworks display. Also effective in opening and closing the film was the use of Nina Simone singing “For who knows where the time goes?” and Bob Dylan’s Viet Nam protest anthem “All Along the Watchtower” is piping in just at a key moment when the Bardem character shows his concern for Morante’s fear of the dark by giving her a candle as a gift.

The picture belongs to Javier Bardem. This is just a great performance, capturing in an understated way the power and grace of a troubled man trying to be human at a time when that doesn’t seem possible. His performance was nearly matched by the splendid complexity Laura Morante brought to her role. As for John Malkovich, he proves he’s a great talent not only as an actor but as a big time director. This was an intelligent and carefully detailed meditation of an honest man trapped by political and family circumstances. It’s a work that respects the audience as having enough smarts to figure things out without being spoon-fed as what to think. One of the most chilling political thrillers in years.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”