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The Dancer Upstairs

The Dancer Upstairs
Fox Home Entertainment
2002 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 133 min. / Pasos de Baile / Street Date September 23, 2003 / 29.98
Starring Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto, Elvira Ménguez, Alexandra Lencastre, Oliver Cotton, Luis Miguel Cintra, Javier Manrique, Abel Folk, Marie-Anne Berganza
Cinematography José Luis Alcaine
Production Designer Pierre-Francois Limbosch
Film Editor Mario Battistel
Original Music Alberto Iglesias, Pedro Malgheas
Written by Nicholas Shakespeare from his novel
Produced by Andrés Vicente Gómez, Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith
Directed by
John Malkovich

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

John Malkovich's directing debut is an impressive and thought-provoking political mystery about terrorism in a Latin American country. Filmed in English, it stars the Spanish Marlon Brando, Javier Bardem. An accomplished and recognized international star, Bardem doesn't seem to have caught on in the states as have some other Iberian imports. I wouldn't call Malkovich's style muted, but there's nothing sensational or commercially thrilling to sell here. The excitement is instead a slow brooding feeling that produces interesting reactions instead of suspense. The Dancer Upstairs seems a bit long, and perhaps becomes somewhat precious toward the end, but I haven't seen a political thriller this interesting since The Tailor from Panama.


A bizarre covert revolution is taking place in an unnamed South American country. Government officials and priests are being murdered, and dead dogs are hung from lampposts accompanied by cryptic notes with intellectual statements claiming Ezequiel as the true President. Detective Agustín Rejas (Javier Bardem) and his tiny staff are put on the problem, but months pass while the outrages continue. With no help from above, Rejas can only find odd connections. Assassinations and bombings come out of nowhere, and when they enter the capitol, the President declares martial law. Rejas' investigation isn't stopped, but he finds his office treated with suspicion - in an earlier career as a lawyer, he tried to prosecute the President as a rapist. Now witnesses are disappearing, and the army is murdering suspects even after Rejas has cleared them. All the while Rejas keeps up a normal home life while drifting toward his young daughter's dance teacher Yolanda (Laura Morante), a bohemian who seems to be above and apart from all this political mess.

The Dancer Upstairs is politically intense. Its story of a country in the middle of a state of siege hits close to home, but it's not an allegory of what's happening in the U.S. today. Instead, its roots go back to State of Siege, Costa Gavras' indictment of American advisors teaching torture in South America - a videotape of the film itself becomes an important clue.

It's taken for granted that Rejas' government is corrupt, and that he's become a policeman to serve justice in a way he never could as a lawyer. The prize for collusion with the ruling politicians is a judgeship, an honor that Rejas continually turns down.

Unlike Costa Gavras' film, The Dancer Upstairs doesn't side with the revolutionaries. They're seen as fanatics following an intellectual leader with a Marxist messiah complex. As the revolution starts in the country, the only agents the cops can catch at first are Quechua Indian children threatened with death. Ezequiel is kept a mysterious savior-like symbol of opposition. Young people kill themselves anonymously just to serve him, as almost nobody has seen him. The assassinations are cruel and savage. In one ambush, young women dress as schoolgirls but brandish machine guns. When Rejas catches up with one dying in agony, she spits in his face.

The governmental crimes that have supposedly instigated all of this are more alluded to than seen. All real business is conducted by high-level 'fixers' like the lawyer that makes deals with the Chinese and negotiates with Rejas as if he were a representative of another criminal family. The President is basically a criminal, using his strings to make sure nobody runs against him in an election - Rejas' superiors cramp his investigation just to make sure he does not become popular enough to run for office himself. Rejas is an honest believer in justice, which in this country makes him dangerous, a man not to be trusted. He fails at his goal to keep the government troops off the streets. The suspects he arrests tend to be seized by the army and secretly murdered. Food for thought.

Rejas' personal life is given plenty of screen time and is less interesting. He loves his family, but his wife is a bourgeois ninny who pines for a nose job and gets excited about her infantile book reports to her ladies' club. We don't respect her any more than we did Julie Christie as the wife in Fahrenheit 451, and Rejas' dedication to her while also pursuing 'the dancer upstairs', doesn't develop.


The whole central issue of Yolanda, the dance instructress who represents issues of art and freedom to Rejas, is too blurry. Little heat is generated, and when Rejas' commitment to this woman on the side compromises his quest for justice, we're surprised that the corrupt government doesn't take advantage of the opportunity to smear him.

After all, the government murdered a dozen innocent actors for no reason but a vague association with the Ezequielistas. They can link Rejas directly to Ezequiel if they wanted to.

The most disturbing thing here is seeing suicide bombers and assassins that don't conform to the present fantasy of religious cult fanatics. The Dancer Upstairs' image of a complex but crooked society defending itself against anarchy is fascinating, especially because the country under siege is no simplified Banana Republic.

Dance and song are brought in in a symbolic way that's too obscure for the fairly straight political story being told. The writer and director's allusions to higher art frankly get in the way. The Dancer Upstairs is an absorbing story, very well directed, but if it aims for clarity, it falls a bit short.

Fox's DVD of The Dancer Upstairs is a stunning transfer of a movie shot on beautiful locations in Ecuador. The Indian Quechua language is indigenous to Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, so it's difficult to place the narrative of this 'fictional' tale anywhere but Peru, where a bloody revolutionary struggle similar to this has been going on for decades.

José Luis Alcaine's cinematography is excellent, and gets a great showcase here. Malkovich and Bardem give a full-length commentary that concentrates on production specifics and not the background of the story or its themes. A Sundance Channel featurette follows Malkovich (who describes himself as an un-friendly cold fish) to a London screening of his film. There's also a making-of featurette and a theatrical trailer.

A picture like this, superior as it is, wouldn't have a chance in the present film market. The Dancer Upstairs doesn't even have the 'feel good' uplift of the highly recommended Dirty Pretty Things - a picture that audiences love but is not doing all that well.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Dancer Upstairs rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, Sundance featurette, making-of featurette, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 20, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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