For his directorial debut, John Malkovich looked first to the pages of Nicholas Shakespeare’s novel, “The Dancer Upstairs.” “Hooked from page one,” the twice Oscar-nominated actor promptly bought the rights to Shakespeare’s political thriller and spent the next five years crafting a triumphant adaptation of the author’s story.
While the Briton’s book is based on the extraordinary hunt for Abimael Guzman, the former leader of Peru’s Shining Path, which was once considered to be the most vicious terrorist organization in the Western Hemisphere, Malkovich’s film is ambiguously set in an unnamed Latin American nation. The film also neglects to offer any clues as to when the events take place, rendering “The Dancer Upstairs” as a sort of reflection of Latin America’s collective political struggles.
After a vaguely unsettling prologue, the film introduces Augustin Rejas (Javier Bardem), police officer working in the nation’s capital. Disillusioned with the theoretics of the law as partner at one of the city’s most prestigious law firms, he switches professions in order to practice the rudiments of the law in the streets. Rejas represents the prototypical detective; he is exceptionally dedicated to his work remains utterly incorruptible in a country built on corruption.
The country is rocked by a series of shockingly violent acts of terror. No claims of responsibility are made, nor is any manifesto released; the only clue that is left at the site of each attack is the declaration, “Vivo el Presidente Ezekiel.” Adopting the prophetic moniker from the Old Testament, the mysterious Ezekiel (Abel Folk) spreads his cryptic propaganda through the city while his disciples conduct high-level assassinations that wipe out nearly half of the government’s top ministers. Rejas is assigned to the case by the chief of police (Oliver Cotton) and assembles a small counter-terrorist unit charged with catching the anonymous revolutionary.
Rejas and his team work around the clock to try and catch Ezekiel. Put under intense pressure by the government to find a menace with virtually identity, Rejas finds comfort in the company of his young daughter’s dance instructor, Yolanda (Laura Morante). At her studio, the worried policeman also escapes the dullness of his loveless marriage. The tenderness of their purposefully undeveloped relationship nicely contrasts the violence of the film.
As the violence builds, the city is placed under martial law and military is sent in to capture Ezekiel by any means necessary. The night sequences of the film are fantastic; each night, the city is blacked out as its curfewed people silently watch the eerie fireworks shot into the air in celebration of each new terrorist victory. All the while, Rejas meticulously prowls the streets in search of clues. Inspired by his friendship with Yolanda, he remains undaunted by the challenge.
“The Dancer Upstairs” is an outstanding piece of cinematography, because it places its viewers at the eye of the revolution it depicts. Under Malkovich’s unpretentious direction, the film is highly realistic in its allusion to the Shining Path guerrillas. Ezekiel’s character exactly mirrors his real-life counterpart, a onetime university professor and admirer of classic moral philosophy. His Maoist followers are also accurately portrayed through their indiscriminately violent acts and blind fanaticism.
John Malkovich has proved himself as a director with his adaptation of Nicholas Shakespeare’s captivating tale. His laudable refusal to Americanize the film with unnatural dialects, product endorsements and improbable plot twists results in an unadulterated perspective upon Latin culture and politics. Nearly all of the cast members are native Spanish speakers, and their accents are perfectly preserved.
“The Dancer Upstairs” is an impressive depiction of a little-known historical conflict. Academy Award nominee Bardem is flawless in his role as an honest man on the heels of unspeakable wickedness. His onscreen chemistry with Morante is also excellent, from their first meeting right up to the film’s d