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    The Dancer Upstairs

    Mas o menos

    Jahn Malkovich's directorial debut, "The Dancer Upstairs," squanders the intensity of its strongest moments by running away from its own political implications, not to mention by being in the wrong damn language.


    "The Dancer Upstairs" is all the more disappointing because it includes enough scenes that are shocking on a human level and haunting on a visual level that you want it to hold together as a political thriller in a way that it doesn't.

    Directed by: John Malkovich.
    Written by: Nicholas Shakespeare.
    Adapted from: his novel.
    Cast: Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto, Elvira M’nguez, Alexandra Lencastre, Oliver Cotton, Luis Miguel Cintra, Javier Manrique, Abel Folk, Marie-Anne Verganza, Lucas Rodr’guez, Xabier Elorriaga, Natalia Dicenta, Wolframio SinuŽ.
    In barely comprehensible English without subtitles.
    From the enigmatic, exhilarating opening scene — in which a group of radicals in a pickup truck with a near-dead dog in the back barrel through the South American night and right past military checkpoints — through a reign of terror that these revolutionaries visit on the national capital, the film has a big impact in its most inspired moments.

    One of the most stunning comes when Javier Bardem, as the chief investigator of terrorist attacks on the capital, spots a frenzy of little children putting up posters for the revolutionaries in the middle of the night. As they evaporate away, he catches hold of one little girl and asks what she thinks she's doing.

    The Dancer Upstairs  
    "They paid me . . . ," she says hollowly.

    "Come with me. They will kill you," he tells her in Quechua.

    "I am already dead," she answers, her eyes like ghostly voids, before vanishing again into the night.

    This is the kind of unforgettable instant that the film is capable of imprinting on your mind. But at the same time, it exposes the most glaring hole in "The Dancer Upstairs." Here we have the white (Spanish-born) Bardem confronting a child who, from her face, is obviously Indian. Her answer is cryptic, creating the sense of mystical attachment to a shadowy, perhaps cultish movement, but it's also inconclusive, explaining nothing about where this movement comes from. There must be more behind this mysterious organization than just anger and terror — there's something going on in the countryside, among the Indians, that demands further exploration — but the film never ventures there. It's a "political" thriller that has no politics.

    From here, it's just a cat-and-mouse game as the stoical Inspector Rejas and his bouncy young sidekick Sucre (I keep trying to put the image of Batman and Robin out of my head) try to track down the terrorist mastermind. It's not a bad detective yarn, but nothing more than that.

    There are other basic problems in the way the film was made. The worst is, it's made in English with all Spanish and Latin actors. Some actors are practically incomprehensible while others speak such clear English that you may think their characters are Americans. It's terribly confusing. I saw the film at the Sundance festival in 2002, where an audience member bluntly asked director John Malkovich, "Why the hell did you make this film in English?" Malkovich hemmed and hawed through a succession of answers about creative decisions and how the book had already been made into a Spanish movie, before basically getting to the real reason — if it were in Spanish, of course, Americans wouldn't come watch it. (John Sayles's far superior "Men With Guns" is a case in point.)

      There's something going on in the countryside, among the Indians, that demands further exploration — but the film never ventures there. It's a "political" thriller that has no politics.
    The difficult accents are often matched by clumsy dialogue in implausible English with a sprinkling of American expressions that a Latin American would never say. The low point of the whole movie comes when the bubbly sidekick Sucre (Juan Diego Botto) sees a beautiful woman and exclaims, "Who put the pubes on my Coke can!" — a line lifted from the Clarence Thomas hearings. Where the hell did that come from? Not only has nobody in Latin America ever heard this line, but it is not even an exclamation that anybody in the U.S. uses. It's a credibility-breaker.

    Although the filmmakers take pains not to identify the country where this drama takes place, it is based on the 1992 capture of Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman in Peru. Whatever your opinion of that communist insurgency, it's a misrepresentation to reduce it to a simple game of cops and bombers. Powerful guerrilla movements grow out of severe social conditions, and government repression typically makes the conditions worse. Such was the case in Peru, whose former president is now a fugitive from justice amid investigations of disappearances, executions and corruption.

    Compared to this reality, "The Dancer Upstairs," is a terribly timid effort. Staring rural and Indian social discontent literally in the face, Malkovich's already awkward film simply blinks.

    MAY 1, 2003

    Reader comments on The Dancer Upstairs:

  • [no subject]   from audrey, Oct 30, 2003
  • The Dancer Upstairs   from Terry, Nov 17, 2003
  • Re: The Dancer Upstairs   from shank, Jul 18, 2005
  • The Dancer Upstairs   from Toby, Dec 6, 2003
  • Re: The Dancer Upstairs   from Mark, Jan 2, 2004
  • Re: The Dancer Upstairs   from Jennifer, Feb 15, 2004
  • Re: The Dancer Upstairs   from Aleksey, Jan 5, 2004
  • Re: The Dancer Upstairs   from AX, Mar 21, 2004
  • Re: The Dancer Upstairs   from Jerrie Ann Yeager, Jan 1, 2005
  • The Dancer Upstairs   from Atim, May 30, 2004
  • The Dancer Upstairs   from John Miles, Jul 7, 2004
  • flaws vs. strengths of movie   from Vil Blekaitis, Jul 9, 2004
  • About the language   from I–igo, Nov 25, 2004

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