Banana republic ennui 

A review of The Dancer Upstairs

The Dancer Upstairs (R)
Fox Searchlight

As an actor, John Malkovich exudes a unique pathology of subdued malevolence -- as if with a pointed gesture or a remark he could have your ass in therapy for the better part of a decade.

As a director, he's no willy-nilly amateur, but not quite as potent as he is in front of the camera. His debut effort, The Dancer Upstairs, is based on Nicholas Shakespeare's novel of the same name that was inspired by Peru's Shining Path revolutionary leader, Abimael Guzman.

Even after swishing it around in your head for a few days, it's hard to decide if Dancer is a remarkable first effort or a sprawling, pretentious failure. It's certainly not a waste of time.

As the subtitles let us know, the setting is a "Latin American country," in "a time not long ago." Dancer is not big on specifics, which lends both a sense of intrigue and, at times, frustrating hints of allegorical political commentary. The country in question features the requisite post-colonial military dictatorship that matches corruption with repression, and like Los Angeles, is stocked to the brim with preposterously good-looking citizens.

Dancer leans heavily on the masterful performance of Javier Bardem, of Before Night Falls fame, who plays Agustin Rejas, a once powerful attorney whose principles found him at odds with the former president. Curiously enough, this doesn't stop him from remaking himself as a policeman -- now there's a profession that's sure keep one's hands clean!

Shortly into the first act, dead dogs are found strung up on lampposts throughout the capital, with blood-scrawled signs fit for an Ed Bircham editorial: "Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver." Rejas and his posse of counterinsurgent cops are assigned to hunt down the source of the ominous warnings: a revolutionary leader known only as President Ezequiel.

In typical Maoist fashion, Ezequiel's followers have quietly subdued the hinterlands through a series of assassinations and bombings. Only through gumshoe investigative work does Rejas learn whether he's hunting Che Guevarastyle commies or an apocalyptic cult.

Even as the bodies start mounting, the riddle remains unanswered. A pre-teen suicide bomber takes out a host of military top brass, and a gaggle of machine-gun-wielding rebels disguised as buxom Catholic schoolgirls ambush a few more. The film's mix of political violence with the interpersonal buoyancy of Rejas and his associates make for an engaging dynamic. Life amidst the most unthinkable horrors just goes on

If there were any exploration of Ezequiel's ideology and vision, then Dancer could rightly be called a political thriller. As Rejas and his counterinsurgent posse frequently note, they're fighting a revolution with an invisible leader and no manifesto. This is a potentially fascinating discourse that's emblematic of contemporary Third World struggles, where ideology no longer reigns supreme -- or for that matter, the anti-globalization movement, whose most unusual feature is its lack of leadership or prevailing ideology.

But Malkovich prefers to turn his camera on the ponderous ambivalence of his protagonist. Rejas has a vacuous and gorgeous wife, but is slowly falling for his daughter's ballet instructor (Laura Morante). Neither of his relationships is fully developed and what we're left with is a lot of Bardem's pensive gazes. Dancer is ultimately both an inchoate character study of Rejas and an inchoate political film.

Bardem, however, is fascinating to watch, as his brand of middle-aged stoicism is more humble and compelling than the typical macho cowboy act.

Rejas is a man defending a regime that seized his father's farm and has already compromised him before, a man trapped between the state, filial duty and more elusive demons. Unfortunately, none of these are sufficiently explored. Like Rejas, the movie hangs up in an uncomfortable limbo.

-- John Dicker


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