“Latin America in the recent past”: As the words fade in over alien hills and mountains — beautiful and mysterious images that wouldn’t look out of place on a gallery wall — a strange tension rises that feels familiar. The subtle irony of this sense of déjà vu reverberates through The Dancer Upstairs.
But few other films (Our Lady of Assassins, for example) have offered us entry into the bizarrely violent demimonde of Latin America and have taken such a strange journey through scenery that occasionally borders on the surreal.
A dog carcass hangs from an urban lamppost with its throat impaled on a stick of dynamite. Hung around its neck, a sign reads: “Viva Presidente Ezequiel.” Police detective Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls) takes it as a clue for a crime still unknown. Later, a hapless pooch strapped with explosives takes an afternoon trot into a peopled market square of Rejas’ unnamed South American town — and becomes an unknowing suicide bomber. The earlier clue thus becomes a grotesque, diabolically cunning invitation card to terrorism as political performance art. When Rejas’ superior, General Merino (Oliver Cotton), demands a list of suspects, Rejas’ colleague, Sucre (Juan Diego Botto), deadpans, “I wouldn’t rule out a cat-lover.”
It’s this kind of dark, dry wit that seems familiar in The Dancer Upstairs, even as its terrorists — disguised as a drama troupe or a squad of machinegun-toting, nubile Latina schoolgirls — perform their cold-blooded executions. You could recognize the ironies here as part and parcel of John Malkovich’s intelligently eccentric persona that he manages to project uncannily on-screen in his promising directorial debut.
As an actor, Malkovich has almost always been more than clever and quirky. The Dancer Upstairs follows suit. In a moment that’s both wry and cinematically self-reflexive, Merino asks Rejas, “Are you the Gary Cooper type?” This question is the key to the film.
Rejas is no cowboy. He’s an indigenous Indian who would have been content as a coffee farmer if the corrupt government hadn’t appropriated his people’s land. Instead, he became a lawyer. But when he discovered that, like coffee beans, justice was just another commodity his government traded in, he left the courtrooms for the streets. As a cop, he feels that the law is less ambiguous and more real. And like a true tragic hero, Rejas realizes in the end that there are no absolutes, only half-blind decisions made in the twilight limbo of ambiguity.
Like Cooper’s iconic sheriff in High Noon, Rejas is not so much a born defender of ethics and the law as a man who finds himself in a position where those responsibilities are thrust upon him. But the bad guys of The Dancer Upstairs don’t wear black hats. Ezequiel seems little more than a ghostly legend and his fanatical followers, inspired by his radical communism (based on Peru’s Shining Path), lethally strike, fade into the background and slip away like chameleons. Malkovich and screenwriter Nicholas Shakespeare (who adapted his book of the same title) subtly place a question in the background that doesn’t seem to arise in Rejas’ mind until the end: Are the terrorists worse than the government that starves the underclass to death in their ghettos?
Where Cooper’s sheriff had a perfect wife waiting at home, as devoted to her nonviolent Quakerism as to her man, Rejas’ lady is a silly, apolitical social butterfly preoccupied with bettering herself through the advice of women’s magazines and nurturing flimsy ambitions of fluttering onto TV and into high society. Cooper’s character seems absolute in his marital fidelity, even when tempted by the smoke and fire of a stereotypical Latina. But can we blame Bardem’s sleepy-eyed investigator when he falls for his daughter’s mysterious dance instructor, Yolanda (Laura Morante)? It seems it’s difficult to be “the Gary Cooper type” and do the right thing — politically or personally — when ideals are corrupted, blurred and effaced by reality.
The Dancer Upstairs isn’t a perfect film. But its strange beauty, sharp, dark wit and subtle romantic tragedy show that its director has found a novel way of being John Malkovich.
Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.