Malkovich takes some assured steps into direction

Preview by Jack Foley

AS JAMES Bond, Harry Potter, Gandalf and co battle it out for Box Office supremacy this Christmas, spare a thought for the little guys. For sneaking their way into movie theatres around about the same time are a host of great little films, which really ought to find a bigger audience than they are likely to, given the number of screens being taken up by the big three.

Take, for instance, Jamie (Billy Elliott) Bell's Deathwatch, or Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser in The Quiet American. Both great films. Or why not opt for John Malkovich's directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs, possibly the pick of the bunch and one which could, quite possibly, be a contender for one of the films of the year.

Starring Spanish actor, Javier Bardem, the film is set in a Latin America which is on the point of collapse thanks to the efforts of a highly organised terrorist movement. Charged with bringing the mysterious guerilla leader, Ezequiel, to justice, Bardem's idealistic policeman, Agustin Rejas, must fight the corruption within his own force, as well as the heavy-handed tactics of the military, in order to put an end to the killing.

In the midst of the chaos, however, Rejas finds respite in Yolanda (Laura Morante), his daughter's beautiful ballet teacher, who may not be all she appears. As Rejas draws nearer to the man who considers himself to be the 'fourth flame of Communism', he and Yolanda will be forced to choose between love, country and self.

Based on the book by author, Nicholas Shakespeare, The Dancer Upstairs is based on the extraordinary manhunt for the leader of Peru's notorious guerilla organisation, The Shining Path - even though the film refuses to name which country it is set.

According to Malkovich, who turned down many offers to direct feature films, and then spurned the opportunity to work with better known US actors and a higher budget, the novel had him hooked from page one.

"Even before I reached the end, I bought the film rights, offering the adaptation to the novelist himself without second thoughts," he explained.

But the director made a conscious decision, early on, not to name the country of origin, or claim allegiance to one revolutionary cause, opting instead to tell a story as though it were fiction.

"I've read some of Shining Path's communiques, but I'm not really interested in its ideology," he continued. "I don't believe that murder or butchery are the best ways to solve the problem of social inequality.... For me, the personal histories of the protagonists are more important than the historical details."

As such, Bardem (who was Oscar-nominated, last year, for his turn in Before Night Falls) turns in a terrific performance as the honourable detective, torn between doing what is right, and following a path to love that can only end in tragedy and turmoil.

The actor maintains he was unequivocally drawn to the opportunity to work with Malkovich, and to the challenges of the role. He was happy to learn that Malkovich regarded Rejas as a man guided by duty rather than obsession.

"There is a difference between obsession and duty and that's why I liked this character a lot," he explained. "For me to play a character so obsessed that he forgets everything else, forgets his daughter... we've seen that already in a lot of movies, no? John said, 'I want to see Rejas washing the dishes, cleaning the house, taking his daughter to ballet class - taking care of everything and trying to capture the most violent terrorist in South America'. That, for me, was the most interesting part."

Malkovich was also keen to create a 'disturbing picture', and one which audiences would find themselves asking 'what's going to happen next?' at all times'. It is tribute to the first-time movie director that he succeeds.

The Dancer Upstairs played to strong reviews at this year's Sundance Film Festival and was also one of the highlights of this year's London Film Festival. UK audiences can catch up with it when it opens in UK cinemas on December 6 and Indielondon would urge you to make the trip - no matter how far you have to go.

The movie will be reviewed in full on this site from December 5, when we will also feature an interview with Javier Bardem, as recorded at London's Savoy Hotel earlier this year.

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