The Dancer Upstairs
16 May 2003
I tried to be linear, but I still may have tried
to say too many things in this movie. But isn't
that always more interesting?
--John Malkovich, New York Times, 27 April 2003
An old pickup
truck bumps along a dark road. In the cab, the radio plays a Nina
Simone performance, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" beginning with
her talky introduction. She's tried, she says, her weary voice
vacillating in the night wind, to "give people what they wanted,"
but this makes her exhausted; they "use up everything." The truck
bumps some more, and when a roadside officer tries to flag it down,
it runs him down and speeds away, a telltale blood splat on the
bumper. One of the passengers grows impatient with Simone: "Why does
she talk?" The answer is mater of fact and not at all impatient:
"She's preparing to sing."
is about preparation. More interested in the process leading to an
act than the act, it is smart, absorbing, and meticulous. And it is
never impatient. Based on Nicholas Shakespeare's 1995 novel of the
same name, it takes on the general shape of a political thriller, as
well as an investigation and romance.
Set in an
unnamed "Latin American" country on the verge of revolution or
collapse, it takes place sometime in "the recent past," that is,
several years following the opening scene. The truck, it turns out,
was carrying the eventual leader of a terrorist group, a Maoist
professor called Ezequiel, as he's headed to his destiny. When the
film picks up again, the guerilla group (based on Peru's Shining
Path and its leader, Abimael Guzmán) is assassinating officials and
recruiting young children as suicide bombers. The people are
frightened, the police are stumped.
One of the
investigators is Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem). He's increasingly
uninterested in his bourgeois wife Sylvina (Alexandra Lencastre),
barely listening as she reads him her book club speech, but plainly
in love with his young daughter Laura (Marie-Anne Berganza). The
domestic scenes are small and telling: he does household chores, he
takes Laura to ballet class and cooks. Mostly, he works long hours
on the job, where he faces occasional and subtle racism (he's part
Indian, raised in the same village as some of Ezequiel's current
followers), as well as digs at his quiet demeanor and seeming
captain, Merino (Oliver Cotton), challenges him to define his
position -- "Do you have a feeling about [the case] or are you the
Gary Cooper type?" -- Rejas resists such categories in themselves.
He can be silent and have feelings, self-possessed and passionate.
This rich combination of characteristics is most evident in his
evolving relationship with Yolanda (Laura Morante), Laura's
beautiful, vulnerable, mysteriously distressed ballet teacher.
investigation and the mostly chaste romance become increasingly and
strangely entangled, the film allows for brief tangents that comment
on the central action and themes. It appears, for instance, that one
of the terrorists is a famous cover model, a plot point drawing
parallels between commercial mandates for beauty and political
managements of the population. Or again, Ezequiel's guerillas commit
one particularly brutal assassination by performing as a theatrical
group, slashing the targets' throats even as the victims believe,
briefly, that they're participating in some "radical" interplay of
audience and actors.
As Rejas and
his team examine crime scenes, the connections between art and
politics -- as spectacles and as audience projections -- become
increasingly obvious, but also increasingly ambiguous. He observes,
"It appears a revolution may be going on, but a revolution that has
yet to declare itself in that orientation." What such lack of
declaration might mean -- for the revolutionaries, for the
administration that is all too eager to call in the military and
crack down on all "artistic" activities, or for the good-hearted
detectives who want to keep (or invent) the peace between these
sides -- remains uncertain. Without a name, without a face to
identify and arrest, Ezequiel can function as an idea, filtering
through the citizenry that may or may not trust its government.
group and the administration, ironically, invest in a paradoxical
faith -- in the power of seeing and remaining unseen ("A thousand
eyes are on you," reads one spooky poster carried by a boy in the
darkened street). And so, the terrorists commit god-awful violence
against innocents as well as authorities, while the government
commits violence as well, in increments, in any number of classist
and racist oppressions. The official line is an effort to maintain
order. But the order benefits those already in power before anyone
like its painstakingly self-reflective protagonist (flawlessly
portrayed by the amazing Bardem), refuses to pull its many threads
all together, to name its outcome or claim explicit triumph. Rejas
is instead haunted, by his past and his present, aware that he is
unable to save the world, except a little bit. Watching young
Laura's dainty ballet performance, his sad eyes reveal all and not
enough. He's still preparing, endlessly patient because he has to
Juan Diego Botto
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult