March 5, 2007
The Dancer Upstairs
In finally got around to seeing this 2002 film, John Malkovich's directorial debut. As luck would have it, two days later anthropologist Orin Starn came to Pomona College for a talk about the history of the Shining Path and Peru's subsequent attempts to deal (or not, as Starn says) with the aftermath of the bloody 1980s. I guess I admired the acting and the cinematography and so forth along with everybody else, but three issues made this a hard film for me to enjoy.
The first is that Malkovich (and, I guess, Nicholas Shakespeare, the writer on whose novel and screenplay this film was based) has done the typical Hollywood thing and reduced an enormously complex social revolution to a kind of Latin American NYPD Blue episode, with the honest cop and the corrupt Army trying to take over the case and the romance and family drama that spills over into the crime scene, in this case the last safe house of Guzman qua Gonzalo cum "Ezequiel." Blech. I mean, I know reduction has to take place, but this was ridiculous.
Second, maybe Malkovich doesn't speak good enough Spanish to have done it differently, but I hate the somewhat outdated conventional way of depicting speakers of foreign language by having them speak accented English. This makes them sound foreign in their own country and less than fully articulate. Film it in Spanish and subtitle it. For the audience that would watch this film, subtitles would be just fine.
Finally, and most importantly, he labels the setting "Latin America" and thinly disguises Peru's Sendero Luminoso guerilla war, all the while including so many specific details about Lima, the Peruvian Andes, Sendero and Guzman that the attempt at generification was laughable. If you're go that close to historical fiction, just go all the way. In his talk, Starn reminded me of even more specific details of the Sendero war that were faithfully but disguisedly represented in the film.