Review: The Dancer Upstairs

The Dancer Upstairs is set in an unnamed Latin America country in the recent past and concerns the attempts of a policeman, Agustin Rejas (played by Javier Bardem), to capture the elusive guerrilla leader who calls himself Ezequiel.

Director: John Malkovich. General release date to be announced.

The Dancer Upstairs

Scripted by Nicholas Shakespeare from his novel of the same title, the movie is based on the real life hunt for the mysterious head of the Shining Path guerrilla movement in Peru during the 1990s.

The Dancer Upstairs marks the directorial debut by the US actor John Malkovich, who has gained something of a cult status for playing offbeat characters in films. This association with a big box office draw like Malkovich will surely give the movie widespread publicity. If other less well-known hands had directed it the Dancer would probably be consigned as ’art house’ and barely commented upon.

However Malkovich’s harsh verbal attack on Robert Fisk some months ago, for the journalist’s incisive analysis of S11 and the war in Afghanistan, made this reviewer approach the movie with some trepidation. Like a great deal of ’liberal’ Hollywood, Malkovich, it seems, was an enthusiastic ’patriotic’ supporter of the US led war on Afghanistan. Given his hysterical attitude towards Fisk, how would the director treat the social and political issues that produce a Shining Path-type movement?

Not the usual Hollywood fare

Happily, the film is not the usual Hollywood fare, where the good guys are the government forces fighting for ’democracy’ and the bad guys are wild eyed and fanatical communists- well not quite anyway. The Dancer Upstairs attempts an intelligent and sensitive treatment, and in the main is an enjoyable and intriguing movie to watch. It partly succeeds in showing how ’ordinary’ people get caught up in huge political movements, as well as depicting realistically the everyday life and domestic situation of the main characters, a side of movies that Malkovich says Hollywood ignores in their quest for super-heroes. Credit should also be given for the director’s choice of Spanish speaking actors over big names from the US, which adds authenticity, and some excellent acting, to the story. Javier Bardem particularly excels. He has just the right strong facial features and long suffering and proud demeanour to carry off the role of Rejas completely believably.

Nevertheless, The Dancer Upstairs is not an outstanding movie. It falls short on giving proper attention to the roots of social instability, class antagonisms and popular revolt. The Dancer certainly does not manage the depths of exploration we saw in Ken Loach’s excellent Latin American film, based on the Nicaraguan revolution and US military intervention, which he produced several years ago.

Although Rejas, the main protagonist in The Dancer Upstairs, is a rounded out character, none of the guerrillas or their sympathisers are properly developed. The passion of revolution, however distorted and brutalised by Ezequil (following the Shining Path), is unspoken. Events are largely seen through the eyes of Rojas, an honest and honourable man, but also a passive figure. Therefore the violence, the breakdown of society, the venality and corruption of the state and ruling class, is depicted in a manner that is removed from the viewer, and presented in an almost dreamlike fashion.

Perhaps anticipating such criticisms, Malkovich has commented, "I’ve read some of Shining Path’s communiqués, but I’m not really interested in its ideology. I don’t believe that murder and butchery are the best ways to solve the problem of social inequality…For me, the personal histories of the protagonists are more important than the historical details".

Nobody expects or wants a fictional film to be a crude representation of ideologies. But the problem with Malkovich’s approach, by giving insufficient attention to the reasons behind the rise of the Ezequil movement, the motivation of its adherents, and indeed, the "problem of social inequality" – the roots of the conflict – is that the film is only surface deep on many levels. It does not provide a necessary psychological explanation for the support (and, yes, the ’butchery’) of the guerrilla movement. The masses, in the countryside and the towns, are merely secondary characters.

The Surreal and the detective story

The Dancer Upstairs combines an almost semi-surrealist approach (including some beautiful cinema photography) with a fairly conventional detective procedural story. Dead dogs hung from street lamps are festooned with Ezequil’s slogans declaring a new guerrilla offensive. Rejas’s superiors tell him to capture the guerrilla leader "before the army returns to the streets" (a clear reference to the series of military police dictatorships that held swathes of Latin America in chains in the 1970s and 1980s until removed by mass democracy movements or incipient revolutionary struggles).

One of the results of the situation provoked by Ezequil’s campaign is a great deal of tension and finally a clash between Rejas’s police and the brutalised military forces that want to smash the guerrillas (and any organised resistance). Indeed at one stage the army declare a state of emergency, occupy the streets and attempt to close down Rejas’s investigations.

Rejas, we learn, was once a lawyer but disgusted by the corruption of the profession, he turned to police work. Nevertheless, he still has to cope with corruption, this time in the police and within the state bureaucracy, and also to counter discrimination (Rejas is half ’Indian’). It is well and good the movie makes these points, but it is mainly communicated to the viewer in a somewhat perfunctory manner.

The film follows the investigations of Rejas and his team of detectives (which include varied, if sometimes predictable, characters). This is often intriguing but does involve some rather implausible co-incidences, including Rejas’s discovery that his home village holds vital clues.

The detection includes a certain philosophical investigation, with references to Plato and Kant, as Rejas attempts to unpick Ezequil’s exotic messages.

There are no manifestos or plans or seemingly any coherent organisation by the guerrillas, according to Rejas. It is a revolution that has "yet to declare itself". All we know is that Ezequil considers the movement the "fourth flame of communism".

The supposedly post-Cuban and post-modernist character of the guerrilla movement in Latin America today is overstated. It is true that the Shining Path was a peculiar development, combining Maoism, traditional guerrilla struggles, a rural outlook, and a nationalism based on the indigenous people of Peru. It marked a new stage in Latin American guerrilla campaigns and was marked by indiscriminate brutality.

But even taking into account all the peculiarities of the Shining Path, like all the continent’s guerrilla movements, it made the fundamental mistake of promoting the role of the peasantry and rural poor over that of the urban working class. Yet, with its collective consciousness and democratic organisations, it is only the working class that can create the basis of a democratic socialist society.

Rejas falls in love in the movie, with his young daughters’ dance teacher (the dancer upstairs). His marriage is benign but loveless. His wife is mostly interested in fashion and entering ’high society’. Laura Morante plays the teacher, Yolanda, soulfully. As Rejas closes in on Ezequil his suspicions of Yolanda grow however. What are her links, if any, to the guerrilla movement? (The portrayal of women is problematic. It can be considered stereotypical – frivolous or fanatical – and seriously undermines the obvious attempt to show people in an all rounded and unbiased way).

It would ruin the story to divulge the answer, but this becomes a key part of the plot and sees Rejas rise to new heights of self-sacrifice and heroism. It is no great secret to say that Ezequil is caught (the real life leader of the Shining Path was tried in spectacular fashion). The real tension is provided by the choices that Rejas must make, including between family and lover, the adulation of the public and cutting deals with the corrupt politicians in order to end an injustice.

These sorts of moral and human decisions can be the basis of great stories. But without a fully developed context, a movie like The Dancer Upstairs does not reach greatness.

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November 2002