Most actors tend to negotiate the move behind the camera with intimate, character-driven human stories. But in his uncommonly ambitious directing debut "The Dancer Upstairs," John Malkovich has tackled a dense and demanding political drama that owes more to Costa Gavras than to any American filmmaker -- a debt readily acknowledged via an excerpt from "State of Siege."
Most actors tend to negotiate the move behind the camera with intimate, character-driven human stories. But in his uncommonly ambitious directing debut “The Dancer Upstairs,” John Malkovich has tackled a dense and demanding political drama that owes more to Costa Gavras than to any American filmmaker — a debt readily acknowledged via an excerpt from “State of Siege.” Inspired by the capture of Peruvian guerilla leader Abimael Guzman above a Lima ballet studio, the film is powered by a superbly controlled performance from Javier Bardem. While it lacks economy and could have used a firmer hand in shaping the key central relationship, this intelligent, arrestingly sober drama packs a cumulative punch that should help it reach a limited but appreciative audience.
Adapted by British writer Nicholas Shakespeare from his own novel, the story is set in the recent past in an unidentified Latin American country.
Perhaps Malkovich’s most disconcerting choice is to film not in Spanish but in English (aside from some brief dialogue exchanges in the indigenous Quechua language of Peru and Ecuador). But while the heavily accented English of some cast members proves occasionally difficult to grasp, the language becomes secondary to the director’s achievement in immersing the viewer in a social climate where political corruption is so pandemic and public indifference so ingrained that a brutal revolution is taking place almost without being noticed.
Bardem plays Agustin Rejas, an idealistic former lawyer whose sense of morality and justice forced him to abandon law and join the police force.
The first sign of the terrorist movement at work comes when the bodies of dead dogs are suspended around the capital, bearing revolutionary slogans attributed to a President Ezequiel. Working only with the name of the leader but without his true identity or full knowledge of his manifesto, Rejas is assigned to investigate the incidents, which are soon tied to a series of ritualistic killings, bombings and other acts of sabotage.
Pressure mounts as the attacks begin hitting more precise political and military targets, while Rejas struggles not only with flimsy leads but with the corruption of his superiors. He meets and becomes attracted to Yolanda (Laura Morante), his daughter’s ballet teacher, whose connection to the terrorist movement is telegraphed perhaps too early by the intercutting of their first encounter with an unsettling scene in which an avant-garde theater troupe summons audience members onstage and executes them.
Inevitably, due to the circumspect nature of Rejas regarding his work and the scant information about Yolanda’s personal life, much of this relationship remains remote and unclear as it unfolds. The incipient romance between them never quite becomes a tangible force, which undermines the credibility of Rejas’ actions on Yolanda’s behalf in the final act.
Despite these uncertainties, however, the drama remains consistently gripping. When the attacks directly target the president, martial law is declared, with the investigation taken out of Rejas’ hands and placed under military jurisdiction. He continues to dig for information regardless, returning in one of the film’s most affecting sequences to his native village, where the local priest was murdered by a woman identified as Ezequiel’s doctor. When the investigation steers Rejas and his team back to Yolanda’s apartment building, leading to the capture of Ezequiel (Abel Folk), the cop remains stubbornly convinced through to the end that she was uninvolved.
Not always as illuminating as it could be, Shakespeare’s script is a little disorganized and cluttered with detail, with more than one lapse in narrative logic and too many convenient coincidences. But Malkovich cogently conveys an unnerving sense of a chaotic, thoroughly rotten society in which the legitimate authorities are only marginally more trustworthy and less dangerous than the violent underground forces.
Bardem’s a magnetic actor who reveals his character’s strength via quiet, physically contained means; his heavy-lidded solemnity carries the weight of Rejas’ disappointment and resignation to the corruption around him in his every expression. While her character never quite gels to the extent it should, Morante also has potent moments, her confusion and bitterness in the climactic scenes helping to pull the story together despite the script’s fragile grounding for some of the closing revelations. Jose Luis Alcaine’s edgy camerawork contributes to sustain tension, while on the soundtrack, especially effective use is made of Nina Simone’s live recording of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.”
The Dancer Upstairs
Sucre - Juan Diego Botto
Yolanda - Laura Morante
Llosa - Elvira Minguez
Sylvina - Alexandra Lencastre
General Merino - Oliver Cotton
Ezequiel Duran - Abel Folk
Laura - Marie-Anne Verganza