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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Malkovich's Long Dance
by Diana Saenger

When John Malkovich read an article in London's Daily Telegraph about Nicholas Shakespeare's novel, The Dancer Upstairs, he had an inkling that he wanted to direct the story on the screen. The article, "Searching for Guzman" was about Abimael Guzman, the leader of the 1980-1992 Peruvian revolution known as Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) and a police detective's 12-year search for Guzman. In The Dancer Upstairs the words `Shining Path' are never actually uttered anywhere in film, and the country in which the events take place is not named. But the two stories are understood to be linked.

Many problems beset the production, and it took six years for Malkovich to see his vision of the novel on the screen. Spaniard Javier Bardem, plays Agustin Rejas, the detective and a man clinging to the hope of an impossible love in an impossible world.

When first approached to play the role, Bardem was nervous that his English was not that good. "The six years was on my side," said Bardem during his visit to San Diego. "I worked on my English, built up my confidence and also starred in Before Night Falls."

Bardem, the first actor from Spain to be nominated for an Academy Award, earned his nomination in Before Night Falls for his role as the persecuted Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Born in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain, the son of actress Pilar Bardem and nephew of Director Juan Antonio Bardem, Bardem appeared in El Picaro (The Scroundrel) at age six. He has since earned many awards for his work.

Initially sought after for a lesser role in The Dancer Upstairs,  Bardem ended up with the lead. "Originally, he was my first choice for Juan Diego Botto's role (as Sucre, Rejas' partner) because he was so young," the director noted. "As time passed Javier expressed an interest in playing Rejas. The more I studied his work and was around him I actually thought his idea was better than mine."

Malkovich was so sure he wanted Bardem, he insisted that his participation be part of the contract. "John is so trusting and when I read for the part, I thought I was terrible, and I hadn't done that much in English so I wasn't sure I could handle it. But he was loyal and thought I could do the role."

Delving into a deep character would not seem so hard after his experience in Before Night Falls and Malkovich's belief that Bardem could handle the role of a man capable of sacrificing everything - family, work and love - in order to carry out his duty, was dead on.

Amid the backdrop of Latin American terrorism fighting to overcome a political regime and scenes of dead dogs hanging from trees, breathes an unrequited love story. Rejas is a police captain ordered to bring down the cult leader Guzmán. Married and centering his world on his young daughter, Rejas is caught off guard when he falls for his daughter's dance teacher (Laura Morante), a woman who lives over a coffee shop.

"In a way Rejas belong to two worlds," explained Bardem, "the world of his wife that is no longer his world … and then to the love of this other woman. When you see what happens to this world he if from you understand why this kind of terrorism happens."

The story meanders weakly around the main plot, and is only reined in by Bardem's strong and cunning performance. The juxtaposition of this man who wants to do what is right for his country and in his life, steers the intrigue in the story.

"The action in this movie is around Rejas, like atmosphere," noted Bardem, but the turmoil is inside. You see the revolution through his eyes. And it's interesting because he is a man of the law and all of this violence is going on around him, but he is not a violent man."

The broad shouldered, dark-skinned actor with looks some would go under the knife for, knows he has reached new plateaux with his work. "I know I can probably make more money if I play the typical Latin character, the Latin-lover - but it's boring," said Bardem. "I want the hard jobs, to make people believe you are a character they have not seen before."

In Dancer Bardem accomplishes this goal as he convincingly reveals the conflicts of his character and the journey of one man's soul.

(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated "R" for strong violence and language.)

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