Javier Bardem Delivers the Goods in The Dancer Upstairs
My introduction to Javier Bardem came via the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men. His portrayal of Anton Chiguhr, the villain he brought to life on the silver screen, was more than memorable. It also won him a well-deserved Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.
I quickly searched for more of his films and found several, the first being this one, The Dancer Upstairs, which also happened to be John Malkovich’s directorial film debut. (He’d previously directed plays with Chicago’s distinguished Steppenwolf Theater Company.)
Bardem plays the role of a police detective who has been tasked with the capture of an anarchist leader by the name of “Ezequiel” in a nameless Latin American country. The film itself is based on a novel about the capture of the leader of Peru’s Shining Path revolutionaries. The film’s focus, however, is on the very human struggle of Bardem, who must do the right thing despite personal frustrations both in his personal life and with the way his country is being run.
On one level it’s a personal story about values, and on another it has the qualities of a Greek tragedy in which the earnest hero is forced to confront his own self-denial and self-deceit, ultimately being blinded by the light. Bardem, as Agustin Rejas, portrays this complicated man with restraint and subtlety. The film reveals the challenge of being a man of integrity embroiled in corrupt circumstances.
It was a fertile period in Bardem’s film career, opening the door to roles in such films as Collateral, The Sea Inside, Goya’s Ghosts, the already mentioned Coen Brothers film, Love in the Time of Cholera, Vicky Christina Barcelona, and Skyfall. If you watch the man’s versatility in these varying roles, you’ll see that his accolades are well deserved.
In The Dancer Upstairs, Bardem is a disillusioned lawyer who has left the law looking for a something better. He’s chosen the life of a police detective which, as it turns out will lead to additional disillusionment. (I’m reminded here of Russell Crowe’s challenges in American Gangster.)
On imdb.com the film gets lower marks by a few viewers who felt a Latin American story with Spanish-speaking actors would have been better served as a film made in Spanish with English subtitles. Some critical reviews cited the slower pace as an issue as well. Evidently these latter do not seem to appreciate all the character development within the storyline.
The story within the story is one of Detective Rejas’ discontent with his marriage and the emotional attachment he begins to have with his daughter’s dance instructor, played with precision by Laura Morante. Bardem’s life on the front lines of major realities pertaining to martial law and potential revolution are in sharp juxtaposition to his wife’s utterly petty life concerns, such as whether she should get a nose job and what style would look best.
My opinion of this film is that it could hardly be improved. The acting, the storyline, the script, the pacing, the attention to detail all add up to a remarkably fine achievement for all involved. This film comes with my highest recommendation.