Eric D. Snider

The Dancer Upstairs

Love is not only blind, but blinding. Those caught within its grip often cannot think objectively or function normally. This is dangerous in normal circumstances, but imagine how much more troublesome love would be if you were a cop hunting down a ruthless South American terrorist!

Such is the case in "The Dancer Upstairs," John Malkovich's arty but flawed directorial debut. Adapted by Nicholas Shakespeare from his own Graham Greene-ish novel, "Dancer" gives its setting as "Latin America, the recent past." No wonder it's vague: If any real nations were characterized this way, there'd be war.

Times are tumultuous, and a mysterious revolutionary called Ezequiel has amassed an army of citizens to commit acts of terror throughout the country. Even children are wandering into plazas loaded with explosives, shouting, "Viva el presidente Ezequiel!" before detonating.

In charge of the investigation is Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem), loyal to his country and determined in his job, but still trying to pay attention to his wife and young daughter. He occasionally manages, in the midst of searching for who or what "Ezequiel" is, to pick up the girl after dance class.

It is there he meets her teacher, Yolanda (Laura Morante), a gorgeous young creature who, for some reason bewitches him. And there he is blinded, and made reckless in his work.

Malkovich presents the necessary violence in a matter-of-fact way, without show or theatrics -- which makes it more startling when it occurs. But his focus is on Rejas' thought process, and that's where the film gets into trouble. We are not given sufficient information on Rejas' life. Why is his wife so obsessed with her own physical self-improvement? Why is he so smitten with Yolanda? Is he dissatisfied in his marriage?

It is easy to guess the twists in the film; that is not the point. The novel, in fact, tells us almost everything up front, then proceeds in flashback. That being the case, however, one must conclude that the less tangible elements -- Rejas' psychology, his reasons for loving Yolanda -- need to have been better developed.

Grade: B-

Rated R, a lot of harsh profanity, some strong violence, brief partial nudity

2 hrs., 4 min.

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