"I heard a powerful attorney once say that establishing the truth was one of the things a trial is for. That is when I understood the law wasn't for me."—Augustin Rejas (Javier Bardem)
Latin America. The recent past. A pickup truck full of Indians rolls down a dark highway. While the radio offers a speech about racial harmony, the driver of the truck blithely runs down an army officer, rolling his body under the wheels without stopping. The next morning, the truck stops at a guard post, where the local officer (Javier Bardem) turns a blind eye to the blood on the fender, condones his assistant taking a bribe, and cares about nothing but his upcoming promotion. He takes a photograph of the driver of the truck and thinks nothing of it.
Five years later, the officer, Augustin Rejas, is a police detective living in the capital. He considers himself an honest man, a man who loves the idea of law but has forced himself to compromise in a world of corruption and violence. But others in this country refuse to compromise: they hang dead dogs from lampposts with apocalyptic signs praising the enigmatic "Presidente Ezequiel," hand children bombs to commit horrible attacks, and assassinate anybody who crosses their path. The government, more interested in bargaining with dictators and drug lords than helping its people, puts Rejas on the case, but with the warning that martial law is just around the corner. And as Rejas nears Ezequiel and the heart of the terrorist organization, he must ask himself an unsettling question: who is worse, the corrupt tyranny that pays his salary or the brutal terrorists that want to bring it down?
Based on Nicholas Shakespeare's novel, which in turn was based on the real life story of the pursuit and capture in 1992 of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman in Peru, The Dancer Upstairs combines a deliberately paced police procedural with a philosophical examination of the complicated nature of Latin American politics. Oddly enough, given the mostly Hispanic cast, locations, and themes, the film marks the directorial debut of John Malkovich, known for his meticulous and low-key portrayals of (as he describes himself) "cold and smart-alecky" characters.
At the center of the tale is Rejas, a man who has substituted cynicism for idealism out of necessity. Rejas has learned to play along with the corruption around him, ignoring the shallowness of everyone in his life, from his priapic partner (Juan Diego Botto) to his vain wife (Alexandra Lencastre) to his heartless commander (Oliver Cotton). But the violence of Ezequiel's followers, coupled with the discovery that Ezequiel is an intellectual, a disaffected Kantian philosopher who took to violence as a moral imperative, awakens the conscience of Rejas. For Rejas, the investigation becomes as much about capturing Ezequiel as discovering how the detective himself can support a morally bankrupt regime from a morally misguided terrorist. How can you be a good man when everyone around you is bad?
Javier Bardem, who plays Rejas with as much restraint as, say, if Malkovich himself took the part, also seems to channel a good deal of Raul Julia here. Rejas is the "one honest man" fighting for a system that does not deserve his kind. The film does not glorify him though, like some Hollywood cop movie. The situation in this unnamed Latin American nation is far too complicated to give Rejas an opportunity to become some sort of hero. Certainly, the rebels apparently stand for something, but Ezequiel never issues any manifestos to outline their plan for his "presidency," just an endless flood of violence. The government seems more interested in shutting down Rejas' investigation and just marching the army in to protect their rapist president, military hotheads, and corrupt ministers. We are never sure, even to the end, which side we are supposed to be on here, and we can completely sympathize with the weary determination of Rejas to simply put this case behind him.
The Dancer Upstairs would probably sink under the weight of its own solemnity if Nicholas Shakespeare's script were not so intelligent. The film never condescends to its audience, throwing philosophical questions our way (what other recent movie would even try to reference Kant?) without getting bogged down in exposition. Rather, the movie shows instead of tells: here are the consequences of so-called moral action; here is where extremism clashes with the real world. Malkovich wisely lets the script work itself out, avoiding flashy effects, speeches, or visual grandstanding. Instead, he keeps the frills to a minimum and offers steadily mounting tension. And he certainly knows what to do with actors.
If the film has a chief failing, it is that the subplot referred to in the title, in which Rejas has a rather tame affair with a dance instructor (Laura Morante) never really feels well developed. Perhaps the film is afraid that to push the affair any further would compromise Rejas in the eyes of the audience, or maybe something got left on the cutting room floor for time. Whatever the case, the love affair really feels like a distraction from the relationship (albeit an offstage one) between Rejas and Ezequiel. Malkovich tries to offer a pay-off to the affair in the last act, in which we discover that both Rejas and Yolanda have profoundly lied to one another, but it seems as anti-climactic as the discovery that the monstrous Ezequiel is merely "a big fat man in a cardigan."
Just as the film borders on pretension, John Malkovich himself comes across as rather overserious and pretentious in a short Sundance Channel featurette on his trip to London to promote the film. Perhaps he is just tired (he alludes on the commentary track to some postproduction squabbles). He seems more accessible in the 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, but does not have as much to say as Bardem and writer Nicholas Shakespeare, who talk a great deal about the real story of the Shining Path and the capture of Guzman.
The commentary track with Malkovich and Javier Bardem focuses primarily on the often mundane details of production. In a New York Times interview, Malkovich downplays his own political agenda in making the film: "I'd be a political person if politics were about solving problems. But politics diminishes and devalues the meaning of intellectual curiosity." In spite of this, The Dancer Upstairs does explore some complicated political and philosophical questions without condescending to its audience. Maybe Malkovich understands more than he is saying.
As I noted above, Malkovich hints at some tension during the film's postproduction, but does not elaborate. I suspect it is related to the political climate of the time: The Dancer Upstairs was filmed prior to 9/11, and its exploration of the social impact of terrorism is too subtle for a nation inflamed by direct attack. Now, with a couple of years of hindsight, we can see the movie for what it is: an intriguing, well-acted exploration of a problem that most of the world already knew about before America did. Alternately dry and suspenseful, intelligent and melodramatic, The Dancer Upstairs has much to recommend it even for its occasional flaws. If you are looking for a smart thriller that does not offer simple answers to complex problems, you should check this one out.
Ezequiel is ordered to be paraded through the streets in a cage before he is sent away for life. John Malkovich and Javier Bardem are released with the thanks of the court.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentaries by John Malkovich and Javier Bardem
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