May 16, 2003

Malkovich tries too hard in his film directing debut

When a film's locale flashes across the screen as "Latin America, The Recent Past," audiences should be wary. Though there are many films in which this type of generality is appropriate, or even necessary, The Dancer Upstairs is not one of them. In this case, the film's failure to identify any specific place or time is indicative of writer Nicholas Shakespeare's inability to nail down the story he wants to tell--a problem that is aggravated by first-time director John Malkovich's general indecisiveness and vague imagination.Inspired by Peruvian guerilla Abimael Guzman's arrest above a Lima dance studio, The Dancer Upstairs was adapted by Nicholas Shakespeare from his novel of the same title. Shakespeare takes this specific historical moment and turns it into the story of detective Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem), an ex-lawyer who is looking for a more "honest" way to practice the law. For Rejas, this proves to be impossible in a system that epitomizes the brutality and corruption of a self-interested, autocratic government.

The Dancer Upstairs follows a series of terrorist acts that take place in the name of "Presidente Ezequiel," a cryptic revolutionary who calls his mission the "Fourth Flame of Communism." After a string of attacks escalate from hanging mutilated dogs on lampposts to the executions of several government leaders, Rejas is called upon to take over the case. Unfortunately, there isn't much of a case, and little more than a name to go on. Ridiculously understaffed and threatened with the prospect of martial law, Rejas attempts to track down Ezequiel in any way possible, even if it means sifting though the city's garbage. Rejas also must juggle his detective work with his burgeoning love affair with his daughter's intoxicating dance teacher (Laura Morante), who seems to have secrets of her own.The Dancer Upstairs has all the makings of a complex political thriller. But the film's most intense moments are lost in its meandering direction and sluggish pacing. It seems Malkovich is between worlds, wanting simultaneously to create a tale of political intrigue and a profound character study. Although the two are by no means mutually exclusive, Malkovich is evidently not the man to unite them in a single project. Instead, The Dancer Upstairs wavers in pace, plot, and objective. The film's common thread proves to be as elusive as Presidente Ezequiel.

Javier Bardem's performance is refreshingly rich and captivating amid this barrage of indecision and aimlessness. Bardem (Before Night Falls) is at once charismatic, sexy, and intensely sad. The film's sluggish pacing feels justified during close-ups of his expressive face. He lends a depth to Rejas that could justify the attention the film pays to this character's internal struggle, though even this is not enough; his struggle never fully develops, but instead gets lost among the film's various other objectives.To its credit, the film is beautifully photographed by Jose Luis Alcaine. He captures both capital and countryside in equally careful detail. The slums of the city are unnaturally gray, discolored and uninviting, while the tree-covered mountains of Rejas's native village contain seemingly infinite shades of green.

At best, The Dancer Upstairs takes an intelligent and guarded look at the ways both leftist and rightist regimes shape the lives of their populace. Malkovich weaves contrasting images into a cohesive and lucid picture of the cost of brutality and violence. In one such moment, a high school-aged revolutionary lies with half her face blown off. As Rejas leans over her in an attempt to help, she recognizes him as an officer, weakly wipes the blood gurgling from her mouth, and flicks it on his face. At worst, Dancer destroys the subtlety that Malkovich has begun to build and sinks into hackneyed generality. In a hopelessly cliched turn of events--the kind that has you thinking "No, please don't..."--the evidence magically--impossibly--leads Rejas back to his childhood village and the coffee farm his family was forced to surrender. This is not only the site of painful memories that Rejas has thus far avoided, it is also the one tiny village (out of an incredible expanse of country that Alcaine adeptly captures) that holds the secrets of Ezequiel's past. Here Malkovich has Rejas sleeping on the floor of the ruined, roofless farmhouse, bathing in a river as some sort of symbolic rebirth, and meeting with a mysterious indigenous man who literally emerges from the mist to offer Rejas the clues he needs to finally track down Ezequiel. The Dancer Upstairs is an ambitious directorial debut for Malkovich; it's a shame it accomplishes so little. Ultimately, even Bardem's superb performance can't redeem it from its own purposelessness. Malkovich has obviously attempted to strike a balance by depicting the extremes of military fascism and communist revolution without proselytizing, but this position is not clearly fleshed out. In an interview with Tasha Robinson, Malkovich said, "Messages are things that go in bottles, or on a telephone. They're not for the cinema." Perhaps Mr. Malkovich isn't aware that without a point, film is pointless.