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film: Anarchy in a Vague State

John Malkovich steps behind the camera for the moody political thriller “The Dancer Upstairs.”

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At the center of this world walks police detective Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem), an upright, principled man who left his job as a lawyer because of the dishonesty associated with it. Determined to get his man, Rejas soon finds himself entangled with a mysterious dance teacher (Italian actress Laura Morante, a flighty beauty whose performance seems stifled by the language barrier).

Bardem, in a rare performance in English (he’s best known for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in “Before Night Falls”), is unusually subdued here. His Rejas is a man who wears his regret like well-worn overcoat and who eyes his silly wife (Alexandra Lencastre) with resignation and melancholy. Charged with hunting down the rebel mastermind behind a campaign of assassinations, car bombings and bloody massacres, Rejas has little to go on except a name — Ezequiel. As the tension builds amid more and more gruesome murders, Rejas’ mood brightens only when his daughter Laura (Marie-Anne Berganza) comes in sight. When he watches her dance — her lithe arms reaching out as if to embrace the lilting notes of “Swan Lake” — everything about Rejas relaxes, softens. The change is subtle but perfectly pitched.

More problematic, however, is the screenplay. Adapted by Nicholas Shakespeare from his own 1997 novel based on the real-life manhunt for the notorious commander of Peru’s Shining Path guerilla organization, the scenes are kept too short and give us little background for the strange events we’re seeing. It’s almost as if both he and Malkovich are so into the story that they can’t conceive of it being unclear.

Despite its occasional pretentiousness and lapses of momentum, “The Dancer Upstairs” does get under your skin. But credit for that doesn’t go to Malkovich and his directing skills. Instead, it is shared equally between José Luis Alcaine’s moody, inky-blue lighting and Bardem’s quietly charismatic portrayal. With a voice as smooth as marble, Bardem crafts a character who emerges from the film completely different from how he began — infinitely sadder, yet ultimately wiser. *** S

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