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THE DANCER UPSTAIRS

One Man's Ceiling

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For five bloody years, a revolution was taking place in one sleepy little nameless Latin American country, and the authorities never even realized it.

To be fair, the revolutionaries announced themselves slowly, with a killing here, a car bombing there, none of it apparently connected and all of it easily attributable to the police or the military. But now the time has come to rally the people by increasing the attacks, and by leaving dead dogs hanging from lampposts with slogans attached to them. One hand-scrawled placard, obviously penned by an anti-deconstructionist provocateur, declares: "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol." Another says: "Guns will make us powerful, butter will make us fat."

Wisdom for the masses, especially in a trendily sinister banana republic rife with corruption, cynicism and ennui. Soon it falls upon Rejas (Javier Bardem), a clever police captain, to locate the hideout of Ezequiel, the Biblical nom de guerre of the man who leads and inspires the terrorists. "It's a pity he had to bring in all this murder and philosophy," says Rejas' mordant boss about his country's dicey politics. "It was perfectly understandable without that horseshit."

This droll pedantry comes to us from postmodern icon John Malkovich, here making his directorial debut with The Dancer Upstairs, based on the novel by Shakespeare (Nicholas, not Wm.). Call it Graham Greene meets Costa-Gavras, but lacking any palpable sense of the former's romantic longing or the latter's political urgency. It's a turgid and, I suspect, deliberately mannered and pretentious piece of cinema, thick with the somber metaphors you'd expect. (When you call your story The Dancer Upstairs, she'd better be more than just a dancer.)

Malkovich films his movie handsomely enough, albeit like a dark twitchy episode of NYPD Blue. His Latin actors, speaking English, perform with varying levels of success, but no one is more muddled than Bardem (Before Night Falls), the rugged and talented Spanish actor whose accent is so thick in The Dancer Upstairs, and whose voice is so clipped and flat, that you often can't understand what he just tried to say. Considering that this is an arthouse film, with no Anglo stars or commercial appeal, one wonders why Malkovich didn't just allow his actors to perform more authentically in their native tongue.

Bardem's Rejas is a married father whose wife is obsessed with superficial things, like nose jobs and skin cream, and whose daughter takes dance lessons from a former ballerina who catches Rejas' fancy. The wife represents her complacent nation, oblivious to its tyranny and the gathering storm, while the daughter is the future of a world freed from racial prejudice and political corruption. Rejas, who lumbers toward a lesson in all of this, ultimately chooses love over a chance to help his country. I think we're supposed to admire him for it. And the titular ballerina represents passion, or misguided passion, or something like that. Too bad Malkovich's film has none to offer.



Starts Fri., June 6. Squirrel Hill

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