Political Film Society - Newsletter #168 - May 10, 2003

May 10, 2003


The Dancer UpstairsDirected by John Malkovich, The Dancer Upstairs is a complex political mystery story based on the hunt for Abimael Guzmán, the founder of Perú's Sendero Luminoso, in the 1980s. (The film's title, thus, calls attention to a literary subplot piled onto the true story.) Based on the 1997 novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, the action centers on Agustín Rejas (played by Javier Bardem), who gave up a law practice to go into law enforcement, which he claims to be a "more honest way to practice law." When the film begins, he is a police officer at the border. A car approaches, with three passengers. One (played by Abel Folk) lacks a valid entry permit, so Rejas insists that the man should come into his office, where he types information on the permit and takes the man's picture; however, before attaching the picture to the permit, Rejas's assistant receives a payoff from the other two in the car, and all three drive away. Next, the scene changes to a time five years later. Rejas is now in the capital city, in a high position with the national police, where strange things are happening but at least he is near his beloved young daughter and somewhat estranged wife. A man called "Presidente Ezequiel" is claiming responsibility for acts of terrorism, including hanging dead dogs from lampposts (in China, a symbol of a dictator executed by the people). In his conceit, Ezequiel Durán believes himself to represent the "Fourth Flame of Communism" (after Marx, Lenin, and Mao), though he has no program other than to bring about chaos. The police find no solid clues about the identity of Ezequiel, the man at the border five years earlier, though a college professor identifies Ezequiel's rhetoric as similar to that of a onetime colleague. Believing that the police are either dithering or implicated, the president of the country declares martial law, just what Ezequiel wants so that the population will turn against the government. (Much in the film is made of the discovery of evidence at the end of a videotape of the 1973 film State of Siege.) The army then confiscates police files, and almost removes his daughter's watercolors, though Rejas is still allowed to pursue whatever leads he can develop. Meanwhile, Rejas flirts with his daughter's attractive but unmarried ballet teacher, Yolanda (played by Laura Morante), and one night he discovers that she has a fear of darkness when the capital is blacked out at 2 A.M.

At one point, she kisses him but warns that the affair should go no farther, but somehow Rejas appears to sense that she is more than a ballet teacher, yet the camera (not Rejas) provides the clue that strong children commit some terrorist acts. Then Rejas decides to go to his ancestral home in the mountains to obtain clues, as rumors abound that Ezequiel is holding out there. (The filming is in Ecuador, Portugal, and Spain.) When he arrives, he learns in his native Quechua from a longtime friend that a chainsmoking Ezequiel once lived in the area with a female physician, who wrote prescriptions for him, but the two now live in the capital. Upon his return, Rejas learns that the physician was a female dermatologist. He decides to collect Yolanda's rubbish to sift for clues, and indeed the police find a used tube of skin cream and cigarette butts. It is just a matter of time before the police spot Ezequiel in her upstairs apartment, and they soon arrest both. Ezequiel is given a life sentence on an offshore island, whereas Yolanda receives a shorter sentence but in solitary confinement within a cell containing no light. The press then lauds Rejas as a hero, and indeed rumors fly that he will be running for president. Rejas instead makes a deal with the president's assistant, General Merino (played by Oliver Cotton): He will not run for president if Yolanda's sentence is reduced, her cell is lighted, and she is given books, papers, and pens. Merino agrees, but then gives him Yolanda's suicide note. Surely, Rejas knows that running for president, outside the entrenched power structure, would result in his own assassination. Audiences, though perhaps confused by cuts in slightly more than two hours of film footage, should stay for the unusual final scene. Similar to John Sayles's Men With Guns (1998), the film dramatically depicts the murderous Sendero Luminoso, the poverty of the indigenous people in the countryside, government corruption and a state's overreaction to the terrorism, so the story is a paradigm that might well apply far north of Perú. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated The Dancer Upstairs as best film exposé of 2003. MH

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The Dancer Upstairs
by Nicholas Shakespeare

Taking the recent turmoil in Peru as his starting point, Shakespeare has written a gripping literary thriller in which a detective's pursuit of a terrorist leader expands into a many-layered tale of politics and love.