Notes on The Dancer Upstairs
Well, I was unable to log online yesterday, and through most of today, so I thought I would post some quick thoughts on the one movie I saw this weekend, John Malkovich’s (film) directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs
. Here was a film that I admired in some respects, but which did not stir any kind of passion in me, one way or another. The Dancer Upstairs
, based on a novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, is one of those movies, like John Sayles’s didactic and schematic Men With Guns
, that takes place in an unnamed Latin American country but which is based on actual fact. In this case, it was the pursuit of Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Maoist Shining Path movement in Peru, which terrorized the country from the late 70s to the early 1990s.
I have actually have mixed feelings about this type of approach; I understand that no movie perfectly depicts historical events, and that fictionalizing events makes them more dramatically pliable (while I’m not familiar with the details of Guzman’s capture, I doubt that the lead policeman fell in love with one of his zealots) and more universally applicable. However, the approach does sacrifice local detail, and more importantly, a specific historical-political context in which the action occurs. For example, even though the government is depicted as brutal, racist, and corrupt, we never learn what really motivates the followers of Ezequiel. They are described as Communists at one point (Ezequiel refers to himself as “fourth flame of Communism,” which I guess is a quote attributed to Guzman), but seem to engage in brutal terrorist acts and gruesome political theater (quite literally at one point; the Interior Minister and his wife are assassinated by a troupe of avant-garde dancers). This is definitely intentional on Malkovich’s part, as you can read here
in this Onion AV Club
interview where he rails against ideology, among other things.
Other than Malkovich’s moody direction (which is actually enhanced by the location shooting in Quito, Madrid, and Portugal and the gruesome, unexplained political theater), I might as well go with the strength of the film, which should be no surprise, is the acting (it’s certainly not the story, well at least for me, I was able to guess from the trailers I saw two months ago that Yolanda was one of the terrorists; this is not to say that Malkovich could not orchestrate suspense; check out the tense, drawn-out build up to the storming of Yolanda’s house and studio, punctuated by a bit of comedy, as Rejas’s wife appears to pick up his daughter, and then dallies outside, much to the frustration of her husband). Javier Bardem plays the lead character, Capt. Rejas, a policeman tasked with capturing Ezequiel. An intelligent, soft-spoken man, who along with the other policemen under his command, is given to dry gallows humor (at one point, after finding the dogs tied to lampposts, messages from Ezequiel, he quips that they shouldn’t “rule out cat lovers”). Rejas looks tired, the bags under his eyes being dragged down by a mixture of idealism and realism; I’d be tired too, not only does Rejas have to deal with terrorists, but also a military aggressively imposing martial law and a vain, self-absorbed wife (there’s a revolution going on, and she’s concerned with a nose job, her book club, and selling cosmetics). The backbone of the story is the somewhat leisurely developed, chaste relationship between Rejas and his daughter’s ballet teacher, Yolanda (Laura Morante), which ends tragically with the capture of Ezequiel, and the two, potential lovers learn each other’s true identities’.
The film’s penultimate scene is ambiguous. Despite his dislike of the government (he has a long, long list of grievances), Rejas compromises with them to insure better treatment and an early release for Yolanda, who refuses to even see or communicate with him. In return, Rejas is offered a position with the government, which he now must publicly support (Rejas’s capture of Ezequiel has propelled him to national prominence and popularity). Despite these events, the film actually ends on a positive note, as Rejas watches his daughter’s ballet recital. A bittersweet moment (Rejas arrives late, and watches from behind some glass doors; when his wife notices his presence, she turns and winks at him), but one that looks towards the future.