Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4
Foreign terrorist groups, like local gangs within the U.S., appear
to compete over how much mayhem they can cause. A recent
report in the NY Times suggests that the Tamil Tigers, fighting for
an independent state within Sri Lanka, have been the most brutal.
By contrast, the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path faction in Peru, has caused
problems for years but when compared to gangs like Hamas, Al Queda and Hezbollah
are small potatoes (or little lima beans, if you will). "The Dancer Upstairs"
is based on an actual case of the search for a notorious South American Sendero
leader with the romantic angle presumably the most fictionalized aspect and is
of significance both as John Malkovich's directorial debut and because unlike
007 its hero comes across as a real person whose life is defined by his
commitment to his daughter and to genuine ideals.
Malkovich, who joins Nicolas Cage and George Clooney as major performers who
have recently tried their hand at the helm, has given his audience a humdinger
of Nicholas Shakespeare's spy story which, despite its character-driven approach
builds up enough tension to get the heart racing. While in one sense the story
recalls the capture and life term given in Peru to American Laurie Berenson,
"The Dancer Upstairs" works on several levels: We get a clear picture of a
36-year-old man who despite high ideals loses some of his focus in his
fascination with his young daughter's ballet teacher and who does his job
tracking down a terrorist because of a sense of duty rather than an obsession
that embraces all of his waking life. As such we see the highly educated
policeman Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem) reject a career as a lawyer, a rising
star in line for a judgeship in his unnamed South American country, chuck his
vocation because of its perceived dishonesty, and try to serve the law in a more
honest albeit far less remunerative job as a cop. Amen.
Promoted and given the job of tracking down a terrorist who calls himself
Ezequial (unnamed in this review in the interest of preserving the suspense), he
is confronted by a man who calls himself the Fourth Wall of Marxism and who
announces his presence not only by a series of explosions and political
assassinations but by hanging dogs on lampposts bearing signs "Long Live
President Ezequial." Faced with a deadline of two weeks after which the corrupt
government will declare martial law and a suspension of liberties, Rejas,
together with his colleague Sucre (Juan Diego Botto), utilizes techniques
ranging from a tape of Costa-Gavras' "State of Siege" to an examination of the
garbage tossed out on a street believed to house the criminal.
Given the nature of his bimbo wife Llosa (Elivira Minguez), we do not wonder
that Rejas would pursue the passionate and mysterious ballet teacher, Yolanda
(Laura Morante), a distraction that could prove deadly to his mission.
If the tense but always humanistic "The Dancer Upstairs" is a sign of what
Malkovich can do behind the director's seat, we can only hope that the man will
continue with his blazing career on the stage and in front of the camera while
at the same time looking into directorial projects as challenging and
breathtaking as this gem. The credit is shared by a stellar cast headed by
Javier Bardem, who bears a resemblance to George Clooney (but who can act) and
who made a name with the arthouse crowd with Julian Schnabel's "Before Night
Falls" - a compelling look at the life of Cuban Reinaldo Arenas who discovers
his homosexuality and is persecuted as a writer.
What makes this picture particularly unusual is its pot pourri of performers
including an Italian (Laura Morante), a Spaniard whose English bears a heavy
accent (Barden), and others whose first languages are other than English making
a valiant effort to speak Milton's tongue with as light an accent as possible.
"Dancer" is filmed impressively by Jose Luis Alcaine in Ecuador, Portugal and
Madrid, perhaps because Peru would not be eager to show its government past or
present as corrupt. One wonders, though, why a single country, say beautiful
Ecuador, would not have sufficed for the entire production.
Copyright © 2003 Harvey Karten