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Cinema Signal:

The Dancer Upstairs
a novel by Nicholas Shakespeare

. "The Dancer Upstairs"

Actor John Malkovich remains behind the camera directing a splendid Javier Bardem in a too-slow but sometimes admirable study in survival amid the minefield of the Latin American political approach to everything, including law enforcement. There's subtlety and sophistication in the effort, with a sizable leak in the vessel of suspense.

Bardem's character, police detective Agustin Rejas, is Malkovich's attempt to place high minded dedication, intelligence and sensitivity into a system sustained by corruption, greed and unfettered power. As a revelation of the director's proclivities, "The Dancer Upstairs" demonstrates something about his standards in the roles he accepts as in-your-face-intelligent villains ("In the Line of Fire") while also demonstrating that his gift for dramatization has limits. As though to emphasize the quality of his protagonist, he adds that his training includes being a one-time lawyer.

While the story may progress with annoying lethargy, the outstanding experience is in being in the fine company of Bardem. His plodding efforts to function in his law enforcement position despite threats and barriers from officials above and criminals below, is marked by all those qualities Malkovich saw in him and doesn't fail to earn our respect and admiration. The most forcefully positive note in this film is the abundant charisma and emotional control he brings to his performance.

A series of terrorist acts, including signs and displays proclaiming the virtues and destiny of the mysterious rebel leader, "Presidente" Ezequiel, seem designed to arouse fears in the superstitious populace and, increasingly challenging to the government's ability to head off a violent leftist coup. Rejas is assigned the task of tracking down the well-hidden revolutionary leader, patterned after the founder of Peru's Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), Abimael Guzman, a conceit stemming from writer Nicholas Shakespeare time in Peru in the 1980s. This Shakespeare adapted the screenplay from his novel.

Rejas is undettered in his mission, even while unpaid. When his payroll check bounces for lack of funds, he comes up with the cash to pay for his daughter's ballet lessons directly to her teacher, Yolanda (Laura Morante), a meeting that starts a series of less justifiable liaisons. An infatuation ensues, despite his being married. The only clue to why he is straying is that his wife, while not unattractive, is superficial and over-talkative. Perhaps writer Nicholas Shakespeare, under the Malkovich guidance, is making a statement about relative levels of intelligence or attainment and how they might affect marriage vows. Just how the extra-marital relationship is developed is one of the principle weaknesses of the drama, leading to ultimate dissatisfaction in the story's resolution.

Moroccan cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine turns in a masterfully moody piece of visualization that probes the depths and the textures of the unidentified setting. Nina Simone's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" from her 1969 recording starts and ends the film. While it's not exactly thematic, it is evocative. One more mark of a not-fully realized effort. The title is misleading (but if we say why we give too much away). More appropriate is the Spanish title, Pasos de Baile (dance steps).

Finally, when all is said and done... bravo Bardem!

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Javier Bardem and Laura Morante
Police detective and his daughter's ballet teacher

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