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The Dancer Upstairs (2002)
Much of the publicity around The Dancer Upstairs has been generated by it being the first feature length film directed by the acclaimed American actor John Malkovich. Undoubtedly, having a “big name” associated with the film was a major factor in attracting the finance requited to make it, and also for the level of critical attention it received on its release.
However, the political backdrop of The Dancer Upstairs does mark it out from the majority of Hollywood films. Set in an unidentified Latin American country in “the recent past”, it is a political thriller about the hunt for the leader of guerrilla group that is attempting to overthrow the state. Although a fictional drama, adopted form the novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, it is clearly modelled on the experience of Peru’s Shinning Path guerrillas and their leader Abimael Guzman.
In the film the guerrilla group is anonymous, having little identity beyond that of its enigmatic leader Ezequiel (Abel Folk). Early on the activities of the guerrillas take the form of surreal stunts. Dogs are hung from lampposts with political statements by Ezequiel attached to them. Sticks of dynamite are attached to the claws of cockerels and are then set loose in a market place. However, these activities soon escalate to assassinations and bombings. One of the most striking scenes in the film is when a young boy blows up a bomb concealed in his school bag. In another audacious attack, guerrillas posing as a dance troupe mesmerises an audience, then selects some politicians within it as volunteers, places them on stage and shoots them. As their campaign intensifies, the guerrillas seem to be everywhere, capturing the imagination of the population and putting the state under siege.
At the centre of the drama is the character of Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem), a police detective who has been charged with capturing the elusive Ezequiel. He is portrayed as an honest policeman who is trying to do his duty despite the corruption of the system he is working within. There is little consolation to be found at home, as he becomes increasingly distant from a wife who has retreated into a world of romantic fiction, cosmetics and wives’ clubs. Frustrated both professionally and emotionally, he is drawn towards daughter’s ballet teacher Yolanda (Laura Morante).
It is these two aspects of Rejas’ life, the search for Ezequiel and his affection for Yolanda, which drive the plot along. Although running parallel, and seeming quiet unconnected, at critical moments they are intertwined. On a dramatic level the film works well, even allowing for some improbable coincidences. It is also impressive on a technical level. The camera work of Jose Luis Alcaine really captures the look of the Latin American city and countryside.
Where the film is weakest is on a political level. It doesn’t really offer any explanation why the country is on the brink of revolution. There is no sense of the social or political conditions that have produced an armed uprising. The oppressive and corrupt nature of the state is only hinted at, and then mostly through the personal experience of Rejas. It is revealed that his father’s farm was confiscated by the military, and that he resigned as a lawyer after the current President escaped a conviction for rape when the victim was spirited away to Florida. Despite these experiences, he continues to dutifully serve the state.
The political framework of The Dancer Upstairs is essentially “liberal” or “neutral”. Its focus is on the emotions of individuals rather than on class or political consciousness. If there is a moral or political idea running the film it is that a person can maintain their individual integrity within a corrupt system. This is personified in the figure of Rejas. He is portrayed as being in the middle, in a politically neutral position, battling against the twin threats of the military and the guerrillas. The reality is of course that Rejas and the military are on the same side, even if they use different methods. He may be doing his job as a detective, but his goal, the capture of the guerrilla leader, can only represent a victory for the government and a defeat for the revolutionaries.
The portrayal of the guerrilla movement is also unconvincing. It appears as more of a cult than a political movement. The main motivation behind the activities of the guerrillas is devotion to their charismatic leader rather than an ideology or a sense of injustice. This is conveyed in their slogan – “Viva el presidente Ezequiel”, often shouted when they have been captured or mortally wounded.
This doesn’t adequately explain why the guerrillas have attracted a following from a wide spectrum of society, ranging from peasants to professionals. When Rejas journeys to his home village to follow up a lead it is shown that the guerrillas have a high level of support, particularly amongst the Indian population, and control huge swathes of the countryside. Although there are some references to Maoism, and that the guerrilla leader styles himself as the “Fourth Flame of Communism”, the political character of the movement is very vague. When Ezequiel is finally captured one of the police detectives quips that he is just a “fat bearded guy wearing a cardigan”. There is a sense that there isn’t much more to this movement, and that with its leader removed the threat to the sate has been extinguished.
The main problem with the film is its reluctance to make a political judgement. Malkovich admits this himself - "The problem with political filmaking is that it takes a line. They don't make them anymore. People are afraid of them. I don't think [my film is] political in the sense that it doesn't proffer any solutions. I don't think there's any fighting for democracy in this movie that I see. Not in this film. There was no democracy there." Although The Dancer Upstairs does make references to, and tries to recreate the feel of the 1973 Costa-Gavras film State of Siege, which has a similar theme, it does not share its commitment. While it works as a drama, the absence of a political critique severely limits its impact.