Since Game 4 of the ALCS was cancelled last night, the wife and I decided to pop in The Dancer Upstairs, one of our netflix movies we’ve had sitting around for weeks. We decided to rent this movie for basically two reasons. First, it stars Javier Bardem. We’ve liked him in both Before Night Falls, and the great Almodovar film, Live Flesh. Second, it was directed by John Malkovich. We both like Malkovich as an actor and hoped he would bring the same intensity to film as a director.
I would like to get some petty annoyances out of the way before I get to the story. First, Javier Bardem is a Spaniard, and looks European, while the story takes place in an unidentified Latin American country. Now there are many people of European ancestry in Latin America, but Bardem’s character is also supposed to be partly indigenous, which seems a bit far fetched. Two, the accents drove me crazy. Not because it made the English hard to understand, which it sometimes did, but because their were so many. There were Spanish accents, Mexican accents, various Latin American accents, and I believe Americans trying to act in a Latin American accent. These accents just highlighted the fact that you had no idea where the story was taking place which became bothersome. Given the fact that my wife is a Spanish teacher and knows many people from Spain, Mexico, Guatemala, etc., I think the accents annoyed me more than it would most people. Finally, the story centers on the search for a revolutionary figure named Presidente Esiquiel. Now, Ezekial is a very uncommon name in the US (I’m not sure how common it is elsewhere) and it sounded funny every time I heard it. I said these complaints were petty, right?
On to the story. Javier Bardem plays a police detective, Lt. Rivas, assigned to investigate an unknown revolutionary force headed by the above mentioned figure Presidente Esiquiel. The group started out in the countryside by assisinating politicians and committing other terrorist acts. They then begin to assisinate national politicians in the capital. The corrupt national governemnt begins to get very nervous and tires of waiting for the police to find out what the hell is going on. It’s not long before they send the military out on the streets.
Despite the deteriorating situation, Lt. Rivas continues his investigation and finds that the revolution is beginning to take on mythic qualities with the population. They are passionately supported by many people in the countryside and feared by the rest. One thing that was not clear to me is why the revolution seemed to be made up by so many women. Also, Malkovich does little to demonstrate why so much passion exists for the revolutionary cause. The only thing we are given is government corruption. But that doesn’t seem enough to sympathize with the tactics employed by the revolutionaries (not that I want to sympathize with commies anyway).
Like I said, the government is shown to be corrupt, but they aren’t shown doing the many awful things that would seem to ignite a bloody revolution. This ambivalence displayed towards both the government and rebels may be purposeful, as movie focuses on the Bardem character. Lt. Rivas is a former lawyer who quit to join the policeforce. He made a life choice to try and make a difference in this country and enforce the law in an honorable way. But it's hard to act honorably when their are so few "good guys" on either side. So Lt. Rivas must conitnue to make sacrifices and take the difficult path dictated by his own standrads of right and wrong regardless of the environment in which he exists. Bardem displays a quiet intensity in this role that really makes the film. It’s slowly paced, which gives him ample opportunity to develop his character. And even though there are not a lot background details given for the plot, there are enough twists and turns to keep it chugging along.
So while there are some things in the movie that bugged me, the story was interesting and I thought Bardem’s performance was great. I also think Malkovich shows a lot of potential as a director. On a scale of a bases empty dinger to a grand slam, I give The Dancer Upstairs a three-run homer.