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The Dancer Upstairs (R)
Fox Searchlight
Official Site
Director: John Malkovich
Producers: Andres Vicente Gomez, John Malkovich
Written by: Nicholas Shakespeare
Cast: Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto, Elvira Minguez, Alexandra Lencastre, Oliver Cotton, Luis Miguel Cintra

Rating: out of 5

The Dancer Upstairs marks John Malkovich’s first big-screen directorial effort, a film loosely adapted from Nicholas Shakespeare’s novel of the same name. Both stories involve a South American cop who is assigned to track the movements of a guerilla organization before a revolution occurs. With prior experience in acting and directing theater productions, Malkovich handles this film with skill and creates believable characters involving pertinent issues.

Much of the realism can be attributed to the source material, which is based off the search for Peru’s terrorist group The Shining Path. However, the subheadings tell us that this film takes place in the Latin America in the “near past,” and any mention of a country or time period is purposely left out to make the movie more universal. Though the overall setting is vague, characters, events, and small details such as street names are so vivid that there is still a strong sense of place.

Agustin Rejas (Bardem) is the cop. He had previously been a lawyer, but the corruptness of the judicial system motivated him to find a “more honest way of practicing the law.” One day while making his rounds with fellow cop Sucre (Botto), they spot a dead dog hanging from a lamppost. The dog has dynamite in its mouth and a sign around its neck proclaiming “Viva el Presidente Ezequiel.” Soon Rejas and the rest of the country begin to experience more dynamite, more deaths, more fear, and more cryptic messages from the unknown entity Ezequiel. Rejas’ superior, General Merino (Cotton), instructs him to put together a team, and explains that Rejas must become a tomcat himself in order to capture the tomcat Ezequiel.

As the clues come together, Rejas and his assistants Sucre and Llosa (Minguez) discover that Ezequiel is a self-proclaimed Fourth Flame of Communism who plans on creating a revolution by strategically winning small victories one at a time and instilling fear in the people. As Ezequiel gains power, the government becomes restless and sends the army to roam the streets with large guns, drive around town with vehicles full of soldiers, and consequently hinder Rejas’ investigation. To successfully find the guerilla leader, Rejas must follow all the rules of his boss, the army, and his own stringent rules of honesty and morality.

What makes this cop-and-criminal story so different from others is Rejas’ humanity, brought to life here so well by Bardem. Unlike the usual scenario where cocky cops slink confidently into enemy territory, weapons firmly in hand, Rejas approaches a suspicious house with fear in his eyes, awkwardly holding a pistol that looks unfamiliar in his grasp. At home, Rejas has a wife and daughter, and puts on an apron and washes dishes just like the rest of us. The transitions between tense and mundane moments are seamless and natural.

Even when Rejas meets Yolanda (Morante), his daughter’s beautiful and talented dance instructor, their relationship is slow and genuine, not accelerated to fit the length of the movie. He is intrigued by her and likes to spend time with her, but Rejas also has a family that he loves and is responsible for. As their relationship grows deeper, a sense of trust begins to develop. But this trust is deceptive; though Rejas spends his days enforcing the law, for safety reasons he cannot reveal his true occupation to Yolanda.

The majority of The Dancer Upstairs is spoken in English, though sometimes the characters slip into Spanish and Quechua, a native South American language. During these times, subtitles provide the necessary translation. Instead of interrupting the dialogue, the changes in language add authenticity to the characters and thus the effect of the movie.

—Kelly Hsu


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