THE DANCER UPSTAIRS is a stunning exploration of passion and delusion, and not just the romantic kind, though the power of Eros is seen here as just as treacherous as the political backdrop of the story. Set in an unnamed South American country in a time specified only as the recent past, an honest man, the regally named Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem), has struck an uneasy inner truce between his ideals and the realities of the corruption around him. An ex-lawyer turned cop with a mordent, ready wit, he walked away from a financially and socially secure future determnined to seek justice another way when it became clear to him that establishing truth wasnt the only purpose of a trial.
He lives a life of penury with a sweet but materialistic wife and a daughter he adores. It is to this daughter that he clings as the last bit of purity amid the corruption, the last thing that makes sense. By extension, he finds himself attracted to her willowy ballet teacher, a vibrant woman who is, spiritually, everything his wife is not. Professionally, hes tracking down a shadowy revolutionary leading an undeclared war against the government with followers who are fanatically devoted to him and to his cause.
John Malkovich, in his cinematic directorial debut, has captured the essence of a country always on the verge of chaos, where sentiment is weakness and weakness can lead even smart people into bad decisions. This is a place and time where children blow themselves up for the cause, flirtations beget gunfire, and cultural events end in extreme political statements. People are dragged off by the authorities or the revolutionaries, filmed in long shots as though we were the populace at large, so inured to the sight of such things that it merits only a passing glance before moving on. Indeed, one character half-jokingly asks Rejas to warn her if revolution is imminent so that she dress appropriately. Shadows suffuse virtually every scene, as though a reminder that the dark side of the human soul is always present, capable of taking over. A perfect metaphor for the irony of a place where it is the police who are a corrupted and the revolutionaries are the ones who are the true idealists, bathed though those ideals are in blood. The blood, and there is a fair amount on screen, is handled in a way that is deliberately non-sensational. The camera does not flinch from the sight of a bullet wound or a dead dog hanging from a lamppost, neither does it linger gratuitously. It is a fact like any other in this world.
Bardem, as in BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, once again delivers a powerful performance. There is a tenderness to his potent charisma, and a wistfulness beneath the mocking exterior as he views the world with eyes that are full of sadness but no longer capable of surprise. In one exquisite sequence, Malkovich allows the camera to focus on his face as rejas watches his daughter dance. The richness of the emotions manifest with a poetic eloquence, the more so for how subtle the changes in Bardems expression register on his face.
The script by Nicholas Shakespeare, based on his novel of the same name, is obliquely telling the story of the Shining Path movement in Peru. Many of the facts are the same. But by placing the fictional Rejas at the center, hes created an interesting conundrum. Passion of all kinds is what drives us if were lucky. Its what makes us feel alive. And yet, as Shakespeare explicates the dark side with such stark and ruthless clarity its impossible to imagine anything on the planet more dangerous.