Death & the Maiden
directed by Roman Polanski
Fine Line, 1994

"Death and the Maiden" by Schubert is an exhilarating work of art.

Death & the Maiden by Roman Polanski is not.

Not that Polanski's Maiden, based on an Ariel Dorfman play, isn't a timely piece with much to say. Maiden has more themes than a freshman comp class, and none of them involve anybody's summer vacation. Rather, Polanski tackles the very real horrors of rape and revenge, the question of how humans heal and the difference between evidence and the facts.

The setting is a nameless South American republic which bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Chile. The time is the near past, just after the fall of a dictatorship that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Gen. Augusto Pinochet's.

Former political dissident Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson) is returning home from a visit with the country's new president, who's just named him head of a human rights commission, charged with investigating the death squads that kept the old regime in power. It's a job he very much wants to do. But his wife, Paulina (Sigourney Weaver), is convinced the commission is a whitewash. Both fortunately and unfortunately, the debate does not remain academic for long.

For on his way home, Gerardo gets a flat tire. And the man who gives him a lift is the same man who tortured and raped his wife 14 times -- always with Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" playing in the background -- while she was a political prisoner.

Or did he?

Paulina was blindfolded during her ordeal, so she never saw her assailant, Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley). Yet she's convinced from his mannerisms, his inflections, his smell, that this is the man. Still, Gerardo, ever the man of law, wants more than evidence. He wants proof.

And thus begins a 90-minute verbal joust, much of it at gunpoint, all of it in the soft glow of a candlelit beach house, where both the electricity and the phones have been knocked out by a thunderstorm.

Polanski is a master of the psychological drama, beginning with his first works, Knife in the Water and Repulsion. He wastes little time unveiling his characters' true agendas, and within 90 minutes tells us much more than we ever wanted to know about any of them -- almost all of it bad. Unfortunately, his material often works against him.

Confession may be good for the soul, but it doesn't always work on the screen, especially when the characters confess at length in the kind of uninterrupted speeches designed for the theater.

Polanski's best work is cinematic rather than dramatic. So not surprisingly, his filmization of Death & the Maiden works best when it steps outside the bounds of theme and theater and shows his characters wordlessly preparing to do something -- Paulina looking for materials to tie up the doctor, Miranda anticipating his escape.

It's the kind of stuff that's too close-up for the stage, but provides blessed relief from the reams of dialogue that clutter up the film.

Death & the Maiden is a well mounted film, beautifully shot, well acted (especially by Kingsley) and dead serious in its treatment of a multitude of important themes. There's no lack of true terror, and the action is both tense and thought-provoking, as viewers strain to separate lies from truth and find a consistent viewpoint among the three unstable characters, each with a cause, each with something to hide. Yet in the end, it's a film that's more exhausting than exhilarating, one we work at more than watch.

So the question is, is it worth the work? Yes, I think, but do not go gentle into its good night. It will not be gentle in return.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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