Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 25, 2003 12:24 am 
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Meandering tension

A group of people traveling across a country in Latin America who have been listening to a talky Nina Simone introduction to her rendition of "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" are held at a checkpoint. The guard, Agostín Rejas (Javier Bardem), takes a Polaroid of a bearded man with glasses whose papers aren't right. Then his assistant accepts a bribe outside and allows the car to drive away. A few years later Rejas, a former lawyer, is now a police officer in the capital investigating signs of terrorism: explosions, dead dogs hanging from lampposts, kidnappings. Signs point to revolution and a leader named "Ezekiel." Eventually Rejas realizes Ezekiel was the man he photographed. Rejas is put in charge of the whole investigation. Chickens explode in market places. Murders occur during an avant-garde theater performance. Masses of villagers are randomly executed. The president of the country declares martial law, and Rejas's investigation is taken over by military police, though he and his staff are allowed to continue. Meanwhile in the disorder corruption reigns and the police rarely get paid.

Rejas's wife is pretty, hyper, too tanned, busy with bourgeois activities like selling cosmetics to her girlfriends, holding 'Bridges of Madison County' discussion groups, and thinking of getting a nose job. His young teenage daughter is studying ballet. The ballet teacher Yolanda (Laura Morante) is a beautiful woman, spacier and classier (more "artistic" and intellectual) than Rejas's wife. He begins to visit her for no good reason, the more puzzlingly because the most he does is stroke her face. Is he especially interested in his daughter's lessons or is he in love with the ballet teacher?

Is this a police procedural or a political thriller?

Both, it seems, in each case. The police investigators catch a sexily clad Asian girl who excites Rejas's young assistant. (I like the way the assistant always calls him "Sir.") Then the military come in immediately and take her and her weapons cache away from them. The investigation leads to a videotape showing Rejas's village priest being fed bits of a bible and then killed. Rejas goes to his village, where he meets with a friend and learns what has been becoming clear, that the revolt has many adherents. There is also a home video at the end of a tape of "State of Siege" (one of several references to Costa-Gavras) of the bearded leader dancing among his comrades. He is "the dancer upstairs," though this reference gets lost.

The terrorists are everywhere. In one scene, a group of schoolgirls in pristine uniforms set off a bomb. One of them lies dying, covered in blood, in a shack. Rejas goes in and comforts her ("Help is coming"). Her reply is to scoop up her own blood and throw it in his face. Scary.

Questionings reveal that the terrorist leader is a former philosophy professor who smokes unfiltered camels and has a serious skin ailment. This may sound like Abimael Guzmán and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) of Peru; it may also sound like the novel by Nicholas Shakespeare from which he adapted this screenplay, but simplifying the narrative structure considerably. The "Latin American" country may look like Peru, but it's the next best thing, Ecuador.

The film meanders. There is a good use of the Ecuadorian locations and there is a recurrent, ominous sense of terror, but the film dithers so much as Shakespeare and Malkovich try to recover the novel's complex social and political mood and its suspenseful story that the suspense languishes, or anyway comes in fits and starts. Somehow the police, led by Rejas, find out that the professorial terrorist leader is in a certain neighborhood, which just turns out to be where his daughter's dance teacher is. Rejas's crew goes through all the garbage in the neighborhood and bingo! They find Kenacort, the dermatological remedy they had been seeking, and they close in on the terrorist. This scene is the most theatrical in staging of all and reminds you that Malkovich has directed dozens of plays but this is his first time directing a film.

Every thriller must have surprises and here the main one is that the policeman's new girlfriend Yolanda is one of the professor's dedicated adherents. She is sentenced to life in a prison cell without light (she's scared of the dark) but because Rejas 's capture of the leader has made him a ready candidate for president of the country, he has the bargaining power to make the government treat her nicely in prison and agree to release her in just three years. The implication is that Rejas has traded the presidency for his love, which is ironic since a note from her shows she cares only for the revolution and not at all for him.

At the end the Nina Simone introduction plays again and this time she sings the song. Who knows where the time goes? Or why this movie has to be 128 minutes long?

Is John Malkovich a better actor or director? I would say that Malkovich is good at both. But at least in movies and in the mind of the general public, he is far more established as an actor. Whether he will build a career as a director no one knows. Harrison Ford was asked recently (in Interview magazine) why he doesn't direct, and he said "It's too hard, it takes too much time, and it doesn't pay very well." Those are good reasons, if you ask me. But Malkovich comes from the Chicago theater and has directed many, many stage plays already. Being a successful movie actor, he naturally wanted to transfer his directing to film. The Dancer Upstairs is an interesting movie. I don't know that it's a completely successful one. It drags in places. I almost fell asleep. Yet I still found something of value in it. The atmosphere is pretty well done and so is the music. Bardem is good to watch, both attractive and convincing, handsome with his flattened nose and sleepy eyes. Restrained as he is in this role, he carries the film. But why are all these Spanish-speaking people talking English? The only local tongue that's actually spoken in the film is the Indian language, Chechua. And the actress playing the ballet teacher Yolanda, Laura Morante, is Italian, but she too is talking English. They all speak with different accents, and it's not so easy to follow. It's as if they're swimming through treacle to get at the meaning of their scenes.

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