PARK CITY 2002: States of Siege; "The Dancer Upstairs," John Malkovich's Intense Debut
by Ray Pride
Terrorism is political, and personal. Cruelty eddies, then creates the world we know.
(indieWIRE/01.13.02) -- John Malkovich's intensely cinematic directorial debut "The Dancer Upstairs" weaves a compelling variation on one of the most violent pre-Al Qaeda terrorist movements: the story of Peru's post-Maoist terrorists, Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path), and the capture of Abimael Guzman, their messianic leader, in the 1980s. Malkovich's film was completed before September 11 and it's a tribute to the actor-director's intellectual curiosity and dramatic sophistication that "The Dancer Upstairs," based on Nicholas Shakespeare's novel, has so much to tell us about today's world.
Malkovich was canny in his choice of collaborators. Javier Bardem plays corporate lawyer-turned-police investigator Augustin Rejas. He is honest, steadfast, and hoping to shift the course of his nation's history by believing the right thing can be done, somehow, someday, some way. His rectitude is the source of many jokes at his expense. "Do you have a delicate constitution, or what?" a General teases him. "Do you think you're a Gary Cooper type?" Rejas loves his young daughter, and his wife is an unrelenting bourgeois who dreams of the perfect nose job, if only her husband could afford it. Rejas is also struck by Yolanda, (Laura Morante), who teaches his daughter's ballet class. A bond begins, if not a love story.
Many things like this are not overtly flagged in "The Dancer Upstairs." The secrecy with which Yolanda and Rejas mask their potentially adulterous activities reflects, on one hand, the compartmentalization of their romantic intrigues, but also their own roles in the battle for the soul of their homeland. Malkovich is excellent at layering background details, such as when the streets are transformed into a different world after martial law is declared (much as New Yorkers quickly acclimated to the sight of armored vehicles on near-deserted Park Avenue).
While the Peruvian setting is blurred, local details are quietly, richly arrayed in this ambitious, smart film, which approaches the effortless sophistication of Shakespeare's fine novel. An example: Sendero's exploitation of a belief held by the indigenous Ayacucho that outsiders come to mountain villages to hack peasants to pieces and reduce their bodies to oil to lubricate the machines of the city. Costa-Gavras' "State of Siege" is quoted -- Rejas is obsessed with a passage from the film -- and the tone of the picture offers hints of influences from other European filmmakers like Volker Schlondorff and Carlos Saura. There are also a handful of smooth coups de theatre -- sudden, precise, telling visual images -- that reflect Malkovich's experience as a stage director with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company.
This is complex and sterling work throughout, capturing the intensity and sorrow of living in interesting times. There's a quiet elegance and sophistication in its design, thorough, but not showy. And the story is beautiful and sad, with characters whose every grunt serves as a weary epigram.
Jose Luis Alcaine, the gifted 63-year-old cinematographer who has shot films for Bigas Lunas, Almodovar, and Victor Erice's masterpiece "El Sur," begins gloomily, then deepens the film's palette beyond shadow to an infernal darkness. The location of a large library is sepulchral, yet luminous, and the wordless ending is shatteringly direct and beautiful, told with cinematic fluency, binding two faces through undying love.
After the second Sundance public screening, Malkovich was terse, witty and circumspect about his working methods. Of the film's design, he noted only, "I'm particular about what people are wearing, particularly if I have to look at it for two months." And, drawing from his experience working with the stroke-afflicted Michelangelo Antonioni, Malkovich said, "I think language can really be overrated as a tool for communication."
Still, if the 4 million dollar production is acquired for North American distribution, a judicious amount of ADR may be required; certain bits of the script's dry wit are difficult to discern through the motley of accents.
[Ray Pride is film editor of Chicago's Newcity. He is a contributing editor of Filmmaker and Cinema Scope, and a filmmaker.]