In March 2002, days before President Bush was scheduled to visit Peru, a car bomb exploded near the U.S. embassy in Lima, killing nine and injuring dozens. Government officials here and in Peru blamed the attack on Shining Path -- a Marxist terrorist organization with roots dating to the 1960s, though it made itself known in 1980. The claim stunned those who believed that Shining Path had been decimated, if not eradicated, in 1992, with the capture of its founder and leader, former college professor Abimael Guzman, who called himself Comrade Gonzalo. During its heyday, Shining Path was responsible for the deaths of 30,000 Peruvians, whom Guzman considered combatants in his war of liberation, and his capture became the stuff of spectacle: Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori had him dressed in prison stripes and dangled from a steel cage, where Guzman delivered one final revolutionary speech before being committed to a life sentence in an underground prison cell.
Guzman has been gone for a decade, but his memory lingers in real life and fiction. Copious Web sites continue to demand his release and tout the resurgence of Shining Path, which has taken up with drug runners to swell its ranks and coffers. In 1995, Nicholas Shakespeare's novel The Dancer Upstairs used Guzman's tale to conjure a sort of thriller cum love story set amid acts of terrorism both violent and symbolic -- the dangling of dead dogs from lampposts and the slaughtering of military officials by young schoolgirls brandishing machine guns as big as they are. Shakespeare, who served as a journalist during the Shining Path manhunt, wrote a novel as much about the personal politics of police inspector Agustin Rejas -- a decent man beset by corrupt government officials and a shallow, social-climbing wife -- as it was about the Maoist-inspired violence and eventual capture of "President Ezequiel," the Guzman stand-in.
Now John Malkovich, making the transition from actor to director, has brought Shakespeare's screen adaptation to theaters, and the story survives the translation -- from grisly fact to compelling literature to big-screen thriller of the sort Graham Greene might have condoned. Indeed, The Dancer Upstairs would have made a suitable double feature with The Quiet American; both films unfold slowly, build toward an anxious climax, end with a shrug of grief. They hinge their tales on noble men swept up in political circumstances bigger than they, who feel more powerless the more valiant their actions. They're also in love with the wrong women in the wrong place at the wrong time. Javier Bardem's Rejas, in particular, has chosen poorly: In between executions and bombings and the terrorists' displays of hammer-and-sickle fireworks that light up the night's sky during blackouts, Rejas falls for his daughter's dance instructor, Yolanda, (Laura Morante), who, we begin to believe, may be choreographing something altogether more sinister.
The Dancer Upstairs unfolds in an unspecified time and an unspecified place: the recent past, we're told, somewhere in Latin America. Malkovich further disorients us by having everyone, regardless of nationality, speaking English, and by bookending his tale with the late Nina Simone's rambling, in-concert rendition of "Where Did the Time Go?"; it plays twice, once on the car stereo of terrorists who run down a police officer standing in their path. The movie doesn't really build tension; from the very beginning we're ill at ease, witnesses to extreme violence, placed in a very bad dream. (It often feels like an homage to Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 Sabotage, itself an adaptation of Joseph Conrad.)
At times, as the hunt for Ezequiel (Abel Folk) hastens its pace and Rejas begins exploring his attraction to Yolanda, the film occasionally takes leaps in narrative and logic. And some will complain that its final scene drags on, that it's unnecessary -- though it can be argued that it provides needed closure, especially as the camera lingers on Bardem's face, where most of the film's action takes place anyway.
Bardem, in his mid-thirties, has the astonishing ability to look like a wide-eyed young man (as in Before Night Falls, for which he was Oscar-nominated) or carry himself like a broken, balding man of middle age (in the forthcoming Mondays in the Sun, in which he plays a laid-off dockworker). Here he resembles Oliver Reed and acts like Gary Cooper -- "Perhaps I am the Gary Cooper type," he jokes when prodded about his actions -- and it is Bardem who holds our interest as the body count rises, as a corrupt government begins interfering in his investigation and he falls for a woman who allows him a brief respite from urban violence and domestic misery. Bardem doesn't say much, rarely raises his voice, loses his temper only once -- but as the film unspools, you come to realize that he says everything with his eyes -- as does the rarely seen Ezequiel, a partial photo of whom, taken by Rejas early in the film, stares out from posters carried by children of the revolution. Bardem's is a remarkable performance -- the quiet Peruvian, perhaps, who might win but never quite triumphs.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.