5 July 2005 | eht5y
An Actor's Showcase and an Excellent Thriller
'The Dancer Upstairs' marks John Malkovich's debut as a film director, but it's hardly his first time in the director's chair: Malkovich was a charter member of the now-prestigious Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, where he split time between acting and directing, developing the versatility that has earned him regard as one of the best character actors in the business. He brings a stage director's consciousness to this fine, unexpectedly suspenseful and complex thriller, a fictionalized dramatization of events surrounding the rise and fall of the Shining Path revolutionary movement in Peru.
In the lead role of Detective Augustin Rejas is Javier Bardem, already an established star in his native Spain who is gaining increasingly wide notice in the US for his award-winning turns in Julian Schnabel's 'Before Night Falls' (2002) and Alejandro Amenabar's 'The Sea Inside' (2004). Bardem, like Malkovich, is a wonderfully versatile actor, and this film offers him another fine opportunity to display his range as Rejas, an idealistic police detective who abandoned a promising career as a trial lawyer in the hope that he might be able to work within the system to heal the corruption of his native country (left unnamed, though the story clearly borrows from actual events in Peru).
The film opens on the high plains at the foothills of the Andes, with Rejas working at a highway checkpoint station. He encounters a vehicle bearing a mysterious undocumented passenger. While Rejas follows procedure, his colleague accepts a bribe, and allows the vehicle to flee the scene.
Years later, Rejas has advanced through the ranks and now works as a detective in the nation's coastal capital. He and his partner Sucre (Juan Diego Botto, making the most of a small role) gradually begin to discover evidence of a burgeoning revolutionary movement led by the enigmatic 'Presidente Ezequiel,' whom Rejas eventually realizes to be the same man he met briefly years earlier at the mountain checkpoint. The followers of Ezequiel--a former college professor and Marxist who went underground ten years earlier to foment a 'fourth wave' of communist revolution (the first three being the USSR, China, and Cuba)--begin to terrorize the capital and outlying regions with suicide bombings and brutal assassinations. Rejas must uncover the secret of Ezequiel before the President enacts martial law and turns the government into another version of the brutal dictatorships previously seen in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.
As the Ezequiel mystery deepens, Rejas begins to develop an infatuation with his daughter's ballet instructor, Yolanda (Laura Morante), with who he shares an unspoken bond and who seems to be an attractive alternative to his own wife (Alexandre Lencastre), a sweet but superficial woman who obsesses over fashion magazines and makeup and begs her perpetually broke husband to let her get a nose job. Rejas begins to court Yolanda, and as he becomes more deeply involved with her, he begins to discover evidence that she may be knowingly or unknowingly connected in some way to Ezequiel.
The political dimension of the story is fascinating, but the main source of conflict is the interior world of Rejas, a sensitive, morally decent man who is torn between his faith in the law and his sympathy for the people who suffer at the hands of corrupt government officials. Rejas is also torn between his sense of honor and decency and his profound emotional attraction to Yolanda. It's a tough role to pull off, and Malkovich gives Bardem the time and opportunity to draw the character's emotional complexity with subtle, patient, expressive moments and line deliveries. Bardem has the rare ability to convey distinct emotions or states of thought with subtle gestures and nuanced facial expressions, and Malkovich demonstrates an actor's trust in another gifted actor to accomplish the film's emotional subtext.
There are a few problems here and there. Rejas' attraction to Yolanda is understandable, but their burgeoning relationship feels a bit forced and underdeveloped at times. A subplot involving the Chinese embassy is introduced but left more or less unresolved. The plot is vaguely predictable, though, in the film's defense, the suspense has more to do with how Rejas will deal with the revelations his investigation will uncover than with what will actually be revealed.
Even with the flaws, 'The Dancer Upstairs' is a highly intelligent and entertaining film, and offers yet another opportunity for American audiences to become acquainted with the fabulously talented Javier Bardem, who is my pick to be the next Marlon Brando.