In March 2002, days before President Bush was scheduled to visit Peru, a car bomb exploded near the U.S. embassy in Lima, killing nine and injuring dozens. Government officials, here and in Peru, blamed the attack on Shining Path -- a Marxist terrorist organization with roots dating to the 1960s, though it made itself known in 1980. The claim stunned those who believed Shining Path had been decimated, if not eradicated, in 1992 with the capture of its founder and leader, former college professor Abimael Guzman, who called himself Comrade Gonzalo. During its heyday, Shining Path had been responsible for the deaths of 30,000 Peruvians, whom Guzman considered combatants in his war of liberation, and his capture became the stuff of spectacle: Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori had him dressed in prison stripes and dangled from a steel cage, from which Guzman delivered one final speech of revolution before being committed to a life sentence in an underground prison cell.
Guzman has been gone for a decade, yet his memory lingers in real life and fiction. In 1995, Nicholas Shakespeare's novel The Dancer Upstairs used Guzman's tale to conjure a sort of thriller-cum-love story set amid acts of terrorism both violent and symbolic -- the dangling of dead dogs from lampposts and the slaughtering of military officials by young schoolgirls brandishing machine guns as big as they were. Shakespeare wrote a novel as much about the personal politics of police inspector Agustin Rejas -- a decent man beset by corrupt government officials and a shallow, social-climbing wife -- as it was about the Maoist-inspired violence and eventual capture of "President Ezequiel," the Guzman stand-in.
Now John Malkovich, making the transition from actor to director, has brought Shakespeare's screen adaptation to theaters, and the story survives the translation -- from grisly fact to compelling literature to big-screen thriller of the kind Graham Greene might have approved. Indeed, The Dancer Upstairs would have made a suitable double feature with The Quiet American; both films unfold slowly, build toward an anxious climax, and end with a shrug of grief. They hinge their tales on noble men swept up in political circumstances bigger than they are and who feel more powerless the more valiant their actions; they're also in love with the wrong women in the wrong place at the wrong time. Javier Bardem's Rejas in particular has chosen poorly: Between executions and bombings and the terrorist's displays of hammer-and-sickle fireworks that light up the night's sky during blackouts, Rejas falls for his daughter's dance instructor, Yolanda (Laura Morante), who, we begin to believe, may be choreographing something altogether more sinister.
The Dancer Upstairs unfolds in an unspecified time and an unspecified place: the recent past, we're told, somewhere in Latin America. Malkovich further disorients us by having everyone, regardless of nationality, speak English and by bookending his tale with the late Nina Simone's rambling, in-concert rendition of "Where Did the Time Go?"; it plays twice, once on the car stereo of terrorists who run down a police officer standing in their path. The movie doesn't really build tension; from the beginning, we're ill at ease, witnesses to extreme violence, placed in a bad dream.
At times, as the hunt for Ezequiel (Abel Folk) hastens its pace and Rejas begins exploring his attraction to Yolanda, the film occasionally takes leaps in narrative and logic. Bardem, in his mid-30s, has the astonishing ability to look like a wide-eyed young man (as in Before Night Falls, for which he was Oscar-nominated) and carry himself like a broken, balding man of middle age (in the forthcoming Mondays in the Sun, in which he plays a laid-off dockworker). Here, he resembles Oliver Reed and acts like Gary Cooper -- "Perhaps I am the Gary Cooper type," he jokes, when prodded about his actions -- and it is Bardem who holds our interest as the body count rises, as a corrupt government begins interfering in his investigation and as he falls for a woman who allows him a respite from urban violence and domestic misery. Bardem doesn't say much, rarely raises his voice, and loses his temper only once. But as the film unspools, you come to realize he says everything with his eyes -- as does the rarely seen Ezequiel, a partial photo of whom, taken by Rejas early in the film, stares out from posters carried by children of the revolution. Bardem's is a remarkable performance -- the quiet Peruvian, perhaps, who might win but never quite triumph.
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