I tried to be linear, but I still may have tried to say too many things in this movie. But isn’t that always more interesting?
— John Malkovich, New York Times, 27 April 2003
An old pickup truck bumps along a dark road. In the cab, the radio plays a Nina Simone performance, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” beginning with her talky introduction. She’s tried, she says, her weary voice vacillating in the night wind, to “give people what they wanted,” but this makes her exhausted; they “use up everything.” The truck bumps some more, and when a roadside officer tries to flag it down, it runs him down and speeds away, a telltale blood splat on the bumper. One of the passengers grows impatient with Simone: “Why does she talk?” The answer is mater of fact and not at all impatient: “She’s preparing to sing.”
The Dancer Upstairs is about preparation. More interested in the process leading to an act than the act, it is smart, absorbing, and meticulous. And it is never impatient. Based on Nicholas Shakespeare’s 1995 novel of the same name, it takes on the general shape of a political thriller, as well as an investigation and romance.
Set in an unnamed “Latin American” country on the verge of revolution or collapse, it takes place sometime in “the recent past,” that is, several years following the opening scene. The truck, it turns out, was carrying the eventual leader of a terrorist group, a Maoist professor called Ezequiel, as he’s headed to his destiny. When the film picks up again, the guerilla group (based on Peru’s Shining Path and its leader, Abimael Guzmán) is assassinating officials and recruiting young children as suicide bombers. The people are frightened, the police are stumped.
One of the investigators is Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem). He’s increasingly uninterested in his bourgeois wife Sylvina (Alexandra Lencastre), barely listening as she reads him her book club speech, but plainly in love with his young daughter Laura (Marie-Anne Berganza). The domestic scenes are small and telling: he does household chores, he takes Laura to ballet class cooks Mostly, he works long hours on the job, where he faces occasional and subtle racism (he’s part Indian, raised in the same village as some of Ezequiel’s current followers), as well as digs at his quiet demeanor and seeming patience.
When his captain, Merino (Oliver Cotton), challenges him to define his position — “Do you have a feeling about [the case] or are you the Gary Cooper type?” — Rejas resists such categories in themselves. He can be silent and have feelings, self-possessed and passionate. This rich combination of characteristics is most evident in his evolving relationship with Yolanda (Laura Morante), Laura’s beautiful, vulnerable, mysteriously distressed ballet teacher.
As the investigation and the mostly chaste romance become increasingly and strangely entangled, the film allows for brief tangents that comment on the central action and themes. It appears, for instance, that one of the terrorists is a famous cover model, a plot point drawing parallels between commercial mandates for beauty and political managements of the population. Or again, Ezequiel’s guerillas commit one particularly brutal assassination by performing as a theatrical group, slashing the targets’ throats even as the victims believe, briefly, that they’re participating in some “radical” interplay of audience and actors.
As Rejas and his team examine crime scenes, the connections between art and politics — as spectacles and as audience projections — become increasingly obvious, but also increasingly ambiguous. He observes, “It appears a revolution may be going on, but a revolution that has yet to declare itself in that orientation.” What such lack of declaration might mean — for the revolutionaries, for the administration that is all too eager to call in the military and crack down on all “artistic” activities, or for the good-hearted detectives who want to keep (or invent) the peace between these sides — remains uncertain. Without a name, without a face to identify and arrest, Ezequiel can function as an idea, filtering through the citizenry that may or may not trust its government.
Both Ezequiel’s group and the administration, ironically, invest in a paradoxical faith — in the power of seeing and remaining unseen (“A thousand eyes are on you,” reads one spooky poster carried by a boy in the darkened street). And so, the terrorists commit god-awful violence against innocents as well as authorities, while the government commits violence as well, in increments, in any number of classist and racist oppressions. The official line is an effort to maintain order. But the order benefits those already in power before anyone else.
The Dancer Upstairs, like its painstakingly self-reflective protagonist (flawlessly portrayed by the amazing Bardem), refuses to pull its many threads all together, to name its outcome or claim explicit triumph. Rejas is instead haunted, by his past and his present, aware that he is unable to save the world, except a little bit. Watching young Laura’s dainty ballet performance, his sad eyes reveal all and not enough. He’s still preparing, endlessly patient because he has to be.