Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An intimate and concentrated 3-person play, Death and the Maiden echoes back to Roman Polanski's
early film, Knife in the Water. Two men and one woman go through a trial together, and keep
reforming into different '2 against 1' patterns. Instead of a husband jealous of his beautiful wife,
however, here the husband has to decide if his wife's vengeance is justified, or if her actions
are the result of a nervous breakdown. It's an acting tour-de-force, kept in line by Polanski's
An isolated house in an unidentified South American country. Paulina Escobar (Sigourney
Weaver) is furious to learn that her husband Gerardo, a public prosecutor (Stuart Wilson) has
accepted the job of investigating the human rights abuses of the former dictatorship. She herself
was tortured mercilessly, and she thinks the new President is convening a whitewash, because he plans
to investigate only deaths instead of torture cases such as her own, where the victims are still
alive to speak up.
With a storm on and the power off, a neighbor shows up at their door, Dr.
Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley). Paulina recognizes his voice immediately and takes steps to capture
him. When Gerardo wakes up, he finds the doctor tied and gagged in the front room, and Paulina
demanding Miranda be forced to confess his torturing of her. Gerardo doesn't know what to
do ... the doctor looks harmless and pleads innocence.
"Death and the Maiden" is the title of various paintings I've seen in collections of macabre art. Most
simply have skeletal creatures molesting nubile females. The common theme seems not to be death, but
defilement, the outrage of innocence being spoiled by an evil, male creature. They get pretty
spooky. The connection here is made through a piece of classical music.
The systematic torture in repressive regimes got way out of hand in South American countries such as
Chile and Argentina. I once knew a Chilean student on a visa who was emotionally weakened by having
been imprisoned under extreme circumstances. The tiny bit I learned about him came from his
wife; it wasn't an open subject of conversation. A very good Argentinian movie, The Official Story,
deals with the wife of a public official who learns that her adopted child was taken from
parents murdered by her husband's cronies.
Death and the Maiden sticks to the immediate reality of torture and its effects. Paulina
Escobar was tortured and raped 14 times (by Miranda, she claims) but didn't reveal the name
of her then boyfriend, Gerardo. Gerardo's protests that she's out of line with the law lose their
weight when he realizes that she's already shown herself stronger than he - he doubts he could have
held up under torture if it were he that had been captured.
Polanski follows the play closely, to the extent that the dialogue is compressed and stylized in a
way that the naturalistic presentation can't always cover. Also, the players don't use Spanish
accents, something they probably couldn't pull off. This kills any Latin flavor - there would have
to be a Spanish language version with Latino actors to make that work, anyway - but it also
makes the story more universal, as if a legacy of political oppression could be alive in England
or the United States. The lonely house out on a featureless coastline already appears to place the
action in some kind of dramatic limbo, like the beach houses of Criss Cross and Kiss
The game is to determine whether Paulina is a righteous avenger and Miranda her torturer, or Miranda
is an innocent victim of Paulina's neurosis. We know she's disturbed - she chooses to eat her meal
alone on the floor of a tiny room. The beyond-all-limits outrage of torture and rape is something
one can't properly respond to in any civilized way. Paulina wants a confession or an apology or
something to put an end to her nightmare, but she doesn't know what exactly. It requires Gerardo to
put aside his ethics as a lawyer and acknowledge a higher justice happening - if only he could
be sure. Death and the Maiden does an excellent job of planting hints of guilt and of
innocence; we don't know if we're watching Death Wish, or The Ox-Bow Incident.
All the torture, rape and outrage is in the eyes of the actors and the words they speak; there's
nothing remotely exploitative about this. 1
At certain points Paulina embraces and touches Miranda with the kind of sadistic tenderness that
she herself endured - the effect is frightening. As for the tortures, just verbally describing
them is debasing enough, and the raw language used is appropriate. The
film masterfully conveys the idea that words can never fully encompass terror.
Death and the Maiden stays small-scale and low-key, building suspense beautifully until
we're wondering if it matters whether or not Miranda is the guilty party. Sigourney Weaver is the
star here; she shows enormous strength in the character and keeps us hoping that she'll not be
revealed as an hysterical paranoid. Stuart Wilson has the tough role of balancing his love for his
wife against the possibility that she's gone insane. And Ben Kingsley, so vicious in last year's
Sexy Beast, shows many possible layers of deception behind his suffering. 2
This is a very serious political thriller.
New Line's DVD of Death and the Maiden is a beautiful transfer of a very dark film. The Escobar house
appears to be lit by candlelight for most of the film, and the encoding doesn't let the blacks
clump up or turn into rough pixillated squares. The simple audio is handled with finesse. Besides
a so-so trailer, there are no other extras.
This is the first film Savant's seen where one person holds others at bay for an hour with a gun,
that doesn't boil down to lame who's-got-the-gun games. This is believable.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Death and the Maiden rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 14, 2003
1. Contrast this with the
Nazi 'torture chic' of The Night Porter, a movie that generates a thrill by elevating the
relationship between a Nazi camp victim and her torturer-rapist doctor to high romance. There are elements
of intellectual truth in the film, as victim and victimizer meet years later to restart their
relationship, but the overall impression is of taboo thrills. The film inspired a decade's worth
of atrocious European movies about imagined sex and perversion in Nazi prison camps.
2. (spoiler) Is Dr. Miranda really so impressed by his neighbor that
he goes out of his way to return a spare tire? I was dreading the idea that Miranda has already
alerted his brother in the secret police and their cronies, who would show up at some point for a bleak
and negative conclusion. The grim endings of most of Polanski's early films encourages this sort
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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