starring Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto, Elvira Mínguez
screenplay by Nicholas Shakespeare, based on his novel
directed by John Malkovich
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Why do people insist on making movies as though all Latin-American countries are the same? How is it that they can get away with ignoring cultural differences and national identities as though they were nothing? The same first-world writers who set their scripts "somewhere in Latin America" would surely find an Ecuadorian or a Peruvian presumptuous for setting his or her own tale "somewhere in Western Europe." But these jokers have no guilt about herding millions and millions of people into the same leaky boat, and defining the stretch from Mexico to Argentina as one big, ugly banana republic. The results are usually not pretty, and The Dancer Upstairs is no exception to the rule.
Set--you guessed it--"somewhere in Latin America," The Dancer Upstairs tells the saga of Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem), an ex-lawyer who joined the police force so as to practice the law "more honestly." No, I didn't make that up. Rejas has had his hands full of late, as there's a revolutionary force rising somewhere just below the horizon: mutilated dogs have been found festooned with peppy slogans like "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol," each of them signed by the firebrand Ezequiel. Unfortunately for Rejas and his fellow officers, the organization appears to be escalating, committing political murders across the countryside and finding followers at every level of society--meaning it's time for a fence-sitting soul-search between the questionable powers-that-be and the violent (if creative) resistance of Ezequiel.
Not only are all the signifiers of "Latin America" in place (chief amongst them political repression and revolutionary violence), they're dealt with in the most vague and generalized manner possible. Poverty appears briefly, but it's upstaged by the machinations of the police plot; no mention is made of the international interests that make repression possible, nor is there discussion of economic factors--such as hyperinflation--that can ravage the populace. There is only a lowly cop trying to live his life; if only silly terrorist organizations would stop messing around, he could go back to enjoying his outrageous powers of search and seizure.
But the film sinks even lower by introducing a cheesy romance subplot that trivializes these already devalued situations, with Yolanda (Laura Morante), the woman of the title, providing a love interest for the (married) Rejas; as the unnamed country experiences martial law in an attempt to find the elusive Ezequiel, Rejas uses his authority to go spooning with Yolanda, and ponders the madness of this crazy mixed-up world. One recalls the ending of Birth of a Nation, when the lead Klansman and his best girl gaze into the horizon wondering how the world could be a better place; although the hero is a little less circumspect in his intentions, the total disconnect from what is happening is similarly appalling.
And that's pretty much it. John Malkovich, taking the helm for the first time, shows himself to be a competent hack and not much more--he manages to reduce the talented Javier Bardem to a stunned horse and the "Latin American" countryside to something resembling an unsalted soda cracker. The only real heat the movie provides comes from Ezequiel's deliciously gruesome scare tactics, which are simultaneously horrible and witty and keep you watching even through the extended soul-searching passages. But when your film's only real entertainment value comes from revolutionary violence, you have bigger problems than mere aesthetic deficiencies. I assume that they could only have come from one place: "somewhere in Hollywood." Originally published: April 30, 2003.