Sat May 24, 2003
The Dancer Upstairs
This is the best slow movie you will see all year.
By John DeSando WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
This is the best slow movie you will see all year. The devilish-eyed, manic actor John Malkovich direct his first feature, "The Dancer Upstairs," with mature visual depth and some character development only a bit faster than the movement of 31 glaciers I recently saw in Alaska. You won't take your eyes off of Javier Bardem either ("Before Night Falls") as Augustin, a former Latin-American lawyer turned investigator trying to find Ezequiel, a revolutionary leader causing mayhem with symbolic atrocities meant to destabilize the new government.
Bardem, who memorably played Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas in "Before Night Falls," is completely different here as a slightly clueless cop with strong intuition and a feeling for his daughter's ballet teacher (the "upstairs" dancer) that complicates his marriage and profession. Malkovich sets the pace to the character's measured approach to his case and his life, the latter memorably occupied by a frivolous wife obsessed with her looks. Slow as Augustin is, I couldn't help but feel that Malkovich sacrificed modern quick-cut noir for old-fashioned reality depicting the difficult and elusive tracking of a master criminal.
But Malkovich kicks into high action, cross cutting gear when Augustin is close to capturing Ezequiel, and the director gently presents an irony, otherwise known as a plot twist, that perfectly represents the na?ve detective (he and the ballet teacher play a game at a cantina that shows how wrong our first impressions of character can be) and the insidious corruption of even the most virtuous in volatile Latin countries.
In addition to the delicious character creation, the director shows the disquieting effects of martial law, forcing an American audience to think quietly about the long-term effects of Ashcroft/Rumsfeld terrorist detentions. Costa-Gavras's "State of Siege" has a part in the film and serves as a touchstone for Malkovich's success. Malkovich doesn't have the master's energetic indignation, but he does have his Graham-Greene ability to show flawed heroes saving themselves from destruction in a boiling climate by watching, waiting, and surviving.
"The Dancer Upstairs," written by Nicholas Shakespeare from his novel, is a delicate dance of intrigue whose rewards are waiting for those who wait to find out that "The fourth stage of communism is just a big fat man in a cardigan."
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org on Thursdays at 8:01 pm and Fridays at 3:01 pm.