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MOVIE REVIEW : Torture, Revenge, ‘Death and the Maiden’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Death and the Maiden” is about the consequences of torture, and it never lets up. Essentially a three-character drama in a single location, it’s an expert piece of claustrophobic cinema, but after a while you may want to break away from it. The film bears down on the audience with an almost sadistic relish. It’s an unsettling experience, but not a particularly rich one. It’s too schematic and self-important for that.

Ariel Dorfman’s play, produced on Broadway in 1992 and from which the film is adapted, has its roots in the playwright’s exile from Chile in 1973 during the coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende. Like the play, the film, adapted by Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias and directed by Roman Polanski, is set in an unnamed country in South America after the fall of a right-wing dictatorship.

It begins with Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) pacing like a tigress within the confines of her cliffside home as a rainstorm strikes and the power goes out. Then her husband, Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson), a lawyer newly appointed by the President to head up a commission investigating the human rights violations of the overthrown fascist regime, is dropped off at home after his car has broken down in the flood. His Good Samaritan is a Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), a convivial physician who professes his admiration for Gerardo’s leftism. Paulina--who was blindfolded, tortured and raped repeatedly by a fascist physician 15 years earlier--overhears Miranda’s voice and freezes in horror. Is this the voice of the man who brutalized her?

The film is about what happens when Paulina turns the tables on the man she believes is responsible for the horrors she still lives with. Strapping him to a chair, bludgeoning him, stuffing his mouth with her panties, she demands he confess to his crimes--that’s the only way he’ll be allowed to survive. Her husband, willing at first to believe Miranda’s protestations of innocence, assumes the role of his defender.

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And that’s about it, for 103 gruesome minutes. As we hear more and more details of Paulina’s torture and Miranda’s denials, the film turns into a grindingly creepy whodunit. (Even the closed-off, candle-lit set is reminiscent of a murder mystery.) But the characters are so ideologically drawn that they lose our sympathies--they’re stand-ins in Dorfman’s existential morality play about justice and revenge.

Polanski, who no doubt connected up to this material on personal levels of his own, does a very good job of keeping the creepiness at full boil; there’s never a moment in this film when you don’t feel the threat of sudden violence. But if there’s a larger dimension to be found in all this, Polanski didn’t find it (and perhaps it’s a good thing he didn’t go looking). “Death and the Maiden"--the title comes from the Schubert string quartet played repeatedly while Paulina was raped--works best as a horror movie.

Weaver plays the role in high-style heroic fashion. She’s overwrought with vengeance. There’s nothing frail or damaged about this woman--she has become pure will. Kingsley, in the film’s most difficult role, keeps you guessing about Miranda’s motives.

Miranda has such a wheedling, flabbergasted, enraged presence that a few of his scenes with Paulina play like a nightmare parody of a bad marriage. She accuses him of lying, he pleads innocence, she tortures him. The batterer gets battered. Wilson’s Gerardo, caught in the middle, has all the ineffectuality of a spurned suitor. He wants to believe his wife, but he also--perhaps out of cowardice--wants to believe Miranda.

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Polanski has rightly resisted the urge to “open up” the play by bringing it outdoors. When he finally does move the action cliffside, the ocean vistas are as intimidating and closed-off as the Escobar’s living room/torture chamber. Everything in this film works up to its final ambiguous image, and yet Polanski may have overvalued its inexorability. We’re supposed to get a case of the cold creeps, but a response of “So what?” would be equally appropriate.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong language and violence. Times guidelines: It includes brutality and graphic descriptions of rape and torture.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘Death and the Maiden’

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Sigourney Weaver: Paulina Escobar Ben Kingsley: Dr. Roberto Miranda Stuart Wilson: Gerardo Escobar A Fine Line release presented in association with Capitol Films of a Mount/Kramer production in association with Channel 4 Films and Flach Films with the participation of Canal Plus. Director Roman Polanski. Producers Thom Mount, Josh Kramer. Executive producers Sharon Harel, Jane Barclay. Screenplay by Ariel Dorfman, Rafael Yglesias from the play by Dorfman. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. Editor Herve de Luze. Costumes Milena Canonero. Music Wojciech Kilar. Production design Pierre Guffroy. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

* In limited release in Southern California.


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