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'The Dancer Upstars'

'Dancer' tracks a revolutionary

Friday, June 06, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

The difference between bitter and wistful disillusionment is not insignificant. It's what intrigues novelist Nicholas Shakespeare and director John Malkovich in "The Dancer Upstairs," a fictional rendering of a very real, very violent South American revolutionary and the lawyer-cop who spent 12 years tracking him down.

'The Dancer Upstairs'

RATING: R for violence and language

STARRING: Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto

DIRECTOR: John Malkovich


Javier Bardem plays Rejas, the diffident detective. Abel Folk is anarchist "Ezekiel," named for the doomsday prophet, who fancies himself the Fourth Flame of Communism (after Marx, Lenin and Mao). The setting here is an unnamed Andean nation. The actual country was Peru, with its Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Marxist movement of the '80s.

Ezekiel's terrorists leave a particularly gruesome calling card at the scene of their crimes: a dead dog, hanging from a lamp post. It is one thing to provoke the government. It is another to provoke the ASPCA (Latin division).

Rejas is a gentle, principled man not easily provoked, either by outlaws or by his bourgeois wife's obsession with cosmetics. Indeed, his only evident passion is an abiding love for his little girl, a budding ballerina, plus a growing fascination with her dance teacher, Yolanda (Laura Molante).

Spain's Bardem, an Academy Award nominee for his performance as Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in "Before Night Falls," is a wonderfully subtle, detached actor, a dreamy-eyed cross between Omar Sharif and Cesar Romero, but he has -- or rather, we have -- a handicap here in the form of his thick accent.

Morante is OK as the eponymous dancer, though she lacks any real romantic spark (romance detracts from thriller). Oliver Cotton as Rejas' military superior is a dead-ringer for Donald Rumsfeld. But the most interesting performer, for my theoretical money, is the intensely handsome Juan Diego Botto as Sucre ("Sugar"!), Bardem's partner -- a smart and helpful sidekick instead of the usual dumb comic foil.

First-time director John Malkovich makes several narrative acknowledgments to his inspiration from Costa-Gavras in general, "Z" and "State of Siege," in particular. Malkovich has brushed up his plotty Shakespeare script and turned it into a creditable film if -- at two hours and 10 minutes -- an overlong one. The violence is brief, sudden, powerful and never gratuitous.

Included in the nice Ecuador location shooting of bona fide Indians is some subtitled dialogue in Quechua, a lovely contemporary dialect of the ancient Inca language. I studied it for a while, 100 years ago, before making a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, and the only thing I remember is "Ama sua, ama llulla, ama quella," which means, "Don't steal, don't lie, don't be lazy."

Just thought you should know this. You never know when it might come in handy.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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