Few real revolutions are televised. Most are stealthier than that, sneaking up on a populace unaware. Such is the revolution of Ezequiel, the phantom terrorist leader of The Dancer Upstairs. The one-time professor of philosophy begins his march to martyrdom in the countryside of Peru, slouching his way slowly toward the capital city. He might be at the very heart of Nicholas Shakespeare's critically acclaimed novel, but its lifeblood is Agustín Rejas. A policeman whose job it is to stop Ezequiel's violent activities, Rejas is a classically conflicted protagonist -- the corrupt and cruel actions of his government repulse him as much as the brutality of its enemies. As he attempts to navigate this murky channel between the forces of terror and the terror of force, he finds himself falling in love with his daughter's beautiful and mysterious ballet teacher. In such an atmosphere of revolution and repression, love is perhaps the biggest leap of all.
Similar to Scott Spencer's Waking the Dead or Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Shakespeare's The Dancer Upstairs is about a man trying to be in the system, but not of it. All three examine what havoc might happen when revolution hits home. But all three suffer in their transition to the big screen.
The good news is that Dancer suffers less than its peers. Where the well-intentioned Waking the Dead (2000) and the inexcusable The Quiet American (2003) failed to maintain their intelligence and integrity, first-time director John Malkovich's efforts ring truer to Shakespeare's original spirit. In the languid eyes of Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls) there is a fading light that captures the very soul of Rejas, a weary foot soldier caught in the machinery of history. And that is the film's greatest success.
Sadly, if you haven't read the novel, you probably won't appreciate the film's first 15 minutes. And if you have read the novel, you won't like the last 15. Shakespeare adapted his own work for the screen, a fact that makes subtle changes in timbre and motivation (not to mention plot) all the more difficult to understand.
Still, Malkovich the director is as strange and interesting as Malkovich the man. In Bardem, he finds a talent equal to his own. Together, they bring an unflinching eye to the carnage and fear of a terrorized society, an improvement on the book's sometimes detached tone. The film's long last scene finally creates that natural moment of sadness and joy this movie has been seeking all along. Looks like feeling John Malkovich can be as captivating as being John Malkovich.