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DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (director: Roman Polanski; screenwriters: Raphael Iglesias/Ariel Dorfman/from the play by Ariel Dorfman; cinematographer: Tonino Delli Colli; editor: Herve de Luze; music: Wojciech Kilar; cast: Sigourney Weaver (Paulina Escobar), Ben Kingsley (Dr. Roberto Miranda), Stuart Wilson (Gerardo Escobar), Krystia Mova (Dr. Miranda’s Wife), Jonathan Vega (Dr. Miranda’s son), Rodolphe Vega (Dr. Miranda’s son); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Thom Mount/Josh Kramer; Fine Line Features; 1994-UK/France/USA)
It’s based on the gripping three-character play by Ariel Dorfman.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s based on the gripping three-character play by Ariel Dorfman and is written by Dorfman and Raphael Iglesias. Director Roman Polanski (“Knife in the Water”/”Repulsion”/”Rosemary’s Baby”)keeps this claustrophobic psychological/political drama tense, adroit and intelligent.It’s set in an unnamed South American country (Chile? That’s where the playwright resides) just freed from a military junta and its new democratic president announces the formation of a human rights commission to investigate that fascist regime’s police methods of torture and its notorious death squads.

On a rainy night, Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson) gets a flat tire on a deserted road and is driven back to his secluded clifftop house by the supposedly liberal Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley). Gerardo has just returned from a meeting with the country’s new president and has agreed to head a commission investigating the atrocities committed to political prisoners in the former fascist regime. Geraldo‘s wife Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) was such a political prisoner who was tortured and raped 15 years ago and is still haunted by those memories. When Paulina recognizes Miranda as the one who tortured her with electric shocks and while raping her played Schubert’s Death and the Maiden to calm her, she kidnaps him and plans to get him to confess or to get her revenge by killing him. Geraldo is never quite sure if his unstable wife is mistaken. He is forced to act as Miranda’s attorney to establish the truth, while she holds a gun on the bound former tormentor and conducts a court hearing into the crime he’s accused of. Paulina acts as jury and judge. It turns out that her tormentor getting a taste of his own medicine is not enough for Paulina, who wants the vile man to confess and say why a man of culture could act like an animal.

The three cast members all give powerful nuanced performances explaining their actions during those turbulent times in a plausible way, as the morality play comes to the conclusion that power is a cause of corruption. Though the acting is superb, the directing is masterfully done with such limited material and the story of redemption rings true, it’s weakened because the tale is too schematic as each character seems to be used as a mouth-piece for the author’s ideological thoughts.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”