The Dancer Upstairs

May, 2003, Drama

Directed by:John Malkovich

Starring:Javier Bardem, Juan Diego Botto, Laura Morante, and Elvira Mínguez

The last 6 months or so have seen the directorial debuts of a quartet of American actors; George Clooney, Denzel Washington, Matt Dillion and this dark, richly atmospheric entry by John Malkovich. Like his peers, Malkovich acquits himself very well in his freshman outing; working from a script by Nicholas Shakespeare, (who adapted his own novel) this political thriller plays loosely but effectively with the facts surrounding the activities of Peru's infamous Shining Path terrorist group over a decade ago. Much of the credit goes to the movie's leading man, Javier Bardem and the director's willingness to take his time unfolding a complex, fascinating plot.

Bardem, who mesmerized audiences in Before Night Falls a couple of years ago, (making peripatetic artist Julian Schnabel  look better than he should in his directorial debut) plays lawyer-turned-cop Agustin Rejas who's assigned the task of tracking down a terrorist known only by the code name Ezequiel, who announces his bloody protests with home-made fireworks and enigmatic manifestos. Working with an inadequate staff, and hounded by an equally bloody--and unpopular-- dictator, Rejas teases out one clue after another while suffering his wife's vacuous fascination with cosmetic fashion and stifling an attraction for his only daughter's ballet teacher. 

Husband, father, bureaucratic, hunter; Bardem's Rejas is Everyman with a badge. Impoverished by the government's decision to seize his family's coffee farm, he earns his law degree and joins a prestigious firm, only to lose a statutory rape case because of political influence. His decision to then join the police force blends idealism with the wary knowledge that the best way to deal with the powers that be is to become one of them. He's smart enough to keep his own intelligence under wraps when it threatens to expose him, but sufficiently professional to keep working his leads in the face of increasing governmental pressure to get out of the way. Fashion magazines, Chinese characters, dermatology and urban garbage grudgingly yield the information this quiet, intense detective uses to draw closer to his target. Bardem avoids here the flamboyance he displayed so effectively in Before Night Falls; his Rejas displays a level of doggedness in his work reminiscent of the cops in Henning Mankell's novels, and Malkovich has the good sense to recognize a good thing when he sees it, allowing the camera to linger on his lead's ability to use his frequent silences to speak most eloquently for him.

The locations, (Portugal & Ecuador) are employed with beautiful brutality, evoking precisely the environment that might well tempt a country's citizens to welcome the violence Ezequiel orchestrates with such self-satisfied arrogance; you may not like what he does, but you can't avoid responding to what he says as commentary to it. While Malkovich's camera doesn't flow with particular fluidity, (a weakness he shares with Dillon's recent City of Ghosts) and his soundtrack suffers from too many muffled lines, the director utilizes a haunting score and vivid backgrounds that draw the audience into his imaginary world with disturbing effectiveness. 

The race between the casual bloodshed of the terrorists and the savage repression of the government's response is sufficiently evocative to stand comparison with Best of Breed films like Z and Battle For Algiers. If Dancer doesn't attain that level of success, it remains a taut thriller with a wonderfully complex lead character; as a result, Malkovich deserves to spend more time behind the camera if he can present well-acted stories as sophisticated as this one. 

The Verdict? Listen carefully, be patient and you'll be appropriately rewarded.  


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