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Terror Firmer

John Malkovich turns Peruvian politics into a big-screen thriller

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, only making itself known in 1980. The claim stunned those who believed Shining Path had been decimated, if not eradicated, in 1992 with the capture of its founder and leader, former college professor Abimael Guzman. 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, from which Guzman delivered one final speech of revolution before being committed to a life sentence in an underground prison cell.

Guzman has been gone for a decade, yet his memory lingers in real life and fiction. Copious Web sites continue to demand Guzman's 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 lamp posts 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 kind Graham Greene might have approved. Indeed, The Dancer Upstairswould have made a suitable double feature with The Quiet American; both films unfold slowly, build toward an anxious climax and end with a shrug of grief. They hinge their tales on noble men swept up in political circumstances bigger than they, and 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 terrorist's displays of hammer-and-sickle fireworks that light up the night 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.

Javier Bardem says everything with his eyes. Here, he falls for the wrong woman (Laura Morante).
Paola Ardizzoni/Fox Searchlight
Javier Bardem says everything with his eyes. Here, he falls for the wrong woman (Laura Morante).

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, speak 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.

Some will complain that the film's final scene drags on, that it's unnecessary. But 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) and 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 amthe 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 as 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 and loses his temper only once, but as the film unspools you come to realize 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 will never quite triumph.

 
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