The Dancer Upstairs
directed by John Malkovich
(Fox Searchlight, 2002)

When dogs suddenly appear strung up from lampposts, political messages tied around their necks, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. And when stray animals and children wander into crowds strapped with explosives, that dread settles in the pit of your stomach.

That's the opening of John Malkovich's directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs, and the quiet panic of political assassination and unrest never lets up.

Much of the film's intensity is traceable to Javier Bardem, whose portrayal of Det. Lt. Agustin Rejas as a man pressured by guilt, by a moral sense of duty to job and family and a fascination with his daughter's dance teacher would tempt other actors into an outburst of a performance. Never Bardem.

He made his mark in 2000's Before Night Falls as Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, and it seems The Dancer Upstairs has propelled him even further. Here, Bardem, as Rejas, is the crux of the film as the man held personally responsible for capturing Ezequiel, a professor and revolutionary guerilla leader whose followers are as ruthless as the government in accepting civilian casualties as a byproduct of hitting their targets.

It all follows the basic history of the Shining Path, a guerilla movement led by extremist factions of the Peruvian Communist Party that began its struggle in the 1980s. Its leader, Abimael Guzman, was a college professor until his capture in the early 1990s.

Human rights groups estimate that, between Shining Path and Tupac Amaru, another Peruvian revolutionary group, 30,000 people have died since the armed attacks began. It's a terror that threatens rich and poor alike, and Rejas must fight against not only the rebels, but also government officials whose ruthlessness rivals the guerillas'.

He stands as the moral center in the midst of chaos, which makes his emotional affair with Yolanda, his daughter's dance teacher, the force that shakes the movie's core. His attraction to Yolanda (Laura Morante) is not only to her beauty, but also to her intense nature. It's a nature he can't fully understand, and doesn't want to comprehend, even as the truth becomes evident.

Bardem's restraint actually pushes The Dancer Upstairs over the edge. Histronics would pull attention away from the plight of the victims, from the terror of the guerillas' tactics and from the corruption on both sides of the coin.

The Dancer Upstairs never specifies where it's supposed to take place; "a South American country" is as detailed as it gets. And that leads to my main (my only, really) complaint: the whole movie is in English. Why? When Rejas takes his investigation to the native Indian villages and when the revolutionaries' signs are shown, subtitles are used, and I would have preferred that to a largely Spanish-speaking cast performing in English.

Not all the symbolism works, and the English accents can be distracting, yet The Dancer Upstairs is a violently passionate step for Bardem's huge talent.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 17 April 2004

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