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‘Dancer’ traces footsteps of evil

Times Staff Writer

In the pleasurably nerve-jangling thriller “The Dancer Upstairs,” Spanish actor Javier Bardem plays a tender-eyed cop named Agustin Rejas. A onetime lawyer, Rejas is working as a detective in the capital of an unnamed Latin American country when corpses of dead dogs begin swinging from lampposts. It’s enough to give anyone the willies, especially since one of the corpses comes adorned with a favorite National Socialist maxim: “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver.”

Written by Nicholas Shakespeare, who adapted the screenplay from his novel, and directed with confident flair by actor John Malkovich, “The Dancer Upstairs” involves Rejas’ two-track inquiry into a spasm of terrorism and, rather less satisfactorily for us, the uneasy stirrings of the policeman’s heart. After a suicide bombing, Rejas launches an investigation aided by a tight, loyal crew. They shake out old news -- a flayed body, a string of murdered officials -- matching it to more recent violence. In one town, a dog wired with dynamite explodes; elsewhere, a similarly booby-trapped rooster meets the same end in a market. Along with the carnage, the cops discover arcane messages extolling someone named Ezequiel and others that cite Immanuel Kant. Blood has seeped into the soil along with philosophy.

Like the book, the film is partly based on the hunt for Abimael Guzman, founder of Peru’s notorious Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). During the 1980s, the former university lecturer transformed himself into a mythic figure through a campaign of publicly staged terror that would have won the approval of one of his inspirations, Chairman Mao. The film opens with a color-saturated segment during which Rejas, then working as a patrol guard, takes a routine photograph of a bookish-looking traveler (Abel Folk). Bespectacled and plagued with bad skin, the traveler exhibits none of the swagger we expect from villains. His hands will be bloodied with the death of tens of thousands but for now he’s an undetonated menace, a ticking bomb that invests the film with dread and the sense that something real is at stake.

Shakespeare spent time in Peru during the 1980s, and while much of his novel unfolds in Lima and surrounding areas, he opted not to name the country. The film pushes this odd conceit further with a statement that the story takes place somewhere “in Latin America, the recent past,” the implication being that one country’s history isn’t all that different from another. It’s a needlessly distracting decision and particularly unfortunate in light of the film’s adamantly political, adult tenor. The producers opted not to shoot in Peru for safety’s sake, but it may be that one reason it takes place in Anywhere, S.A., is that, unlike the novel, the movie centers on a character who although fluent in the indigenous language of Quechua looks as Indian as its director.

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In the novel, Rejas is part Indian, a fact that burdens him and complicates his relationship to the country’s complex power relations. With his soft, at times unintelligibly accented, English, Bardem could never be mistaken for one of Peru’s mestizo (mixed race) inhabitants. That robs the story of some of its nuance but it’s to Malkovich’s credit as a director and to Bardem’s credit as an actor capable of eliciting enormous sympathy that the change doesn’t leech “The Dancer Upstairs” of its force. If anything, Shakespeare’s judicious amendments, along with Malkovich’s pacing and intuitive sense of how to build tension inch by unsettling inch, make the film more harrowing than the book. Here, the urgent question of how an individual maintains his humanity when his paychecks are cut by a government every bit as corrupt as its terrorist outlaws isn’t the stuff of abstract speculation but a matter of life, death and honest screen thrills.

If the screenwriter and director had followed their cinematic instincts fully, they would have collaborated on one of the more satisfying political thrillers in years; instead, they’ve managed to create three-quarters of one. The quarter that doesn’t work, that lands with a thud and nearly upends the otherwise expertly staged windup, involves a ballet teacher (the appealing Laura Morante) with whom Rejas becomes romantically entangled. Their liaison comes straight from the novel and like some of the book’s other details is rooted in fact, but it just doesn’t work. No matter what the truth and no matter how delicately committed to the page, melodramatic contrivance and whopping coincidence always play louder and often more crudely when blown up for the movies.

The romance and the film’s squirmingly awkward final few minutes blunt Malkovich’s efforts up until then, but there’s no denying that he’s as much a natural behind the camera as in front of it. A co-founder of Steppenwolf, Malkovich spent much of the last decade perfecting his brand of snake-charmer villainy in movies such as “In the Line of Fire.” Since then he’s moved residence to the South of France and become most famous for playing a version of himself in Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich,” one of the few films that sought (and received) the full measure of his acting talents. One of the lessons of Malkovich’s Hollywood career is that intelligence and lacerating wit are not especially valued commodities; a lesson of “The Dancer Upstairs” is that when it comes to good movies they’re nothing less than indispensable.

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‘The Dancer Upstairs’

MPAA rating: R for strong violence and for language

Times guidelines: Disturbing human and animal violence, some partial nudity

Javier Bardem...Rejas

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Juan Diego Botto...Sucre

Laura Morante...Yolanda

Elvira Minguez...Llosa

Alexandra Lencastre...Sylvina

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An Andres Vicente Gomez production for Mr. Mudd in association with Antena 3 Television, Via Digital, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director John Malkovich. Writer Nicholas Shakespeare, based on his novel. Producers Andres Vicente Gomez, John Malkovich. Director of photography Jose Luis Alcaine. Original music Alberto Iglesias. Editor Mario Battistel. Production designer Pierre-Francois Limbosh. Production sound Antonio Bloch. Costume design Bina Daigeler. Make-up Ana Lozano. Casting Camilla-Valentine Isola, Katrina Bayonas. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

Exclusively at Landmark’s NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 394-8099, and Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.


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