A military junta rules an unnamed country in Latin America and a communist guru who calls himself Ezequiel (Abel Folk) leads an ever escalating anti-government terrorist movement whose early acts of political revolution are characterized by prominently displayed dead dogs. Enter idealistic yet complexly jaded former lawyer Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem) who's become a detective in hopes of finding a more legitimate way of practicing the law and is assigned to investigate the case. As he seeks the truth about Ezequiel however he grows ever more disillusioned with his adamantly bourgeois wife (Alexandra Lencastre) and falls ever more deeply into a complex relationship with his daughter's secretive ballet teacher Yolanda (Laura Morante). Through his search for Ezequiel Rejas struggles to come to terms with his activist-villager roots while working in the service of a fascist regime and the audience gets a firsthand look at the ongoing battle in the third world between military fascism and communist revolution. Both the lead character and the audience discover that no position--political or personal--is ever as clear-cut as either side's propaganda makes it seem.
An intelligent international cast led by the Spaniard Bardem and the Italian Morante treads lightly on the sharp political bed of nails that is the script of The Dancer Upstairs. One misstep they seem to understand could disrupt the delicate balance Malkovich works so hard to maintain throughout the film. It's a tribute both to the depth of Bardem's talent and the vision of his director that he delivers such a careful considered and clearly motivated exploration of his character showing us with a glance a gesture or a phrase that while Rejas strives to live as an independent self-respecting individual he is never free of the political upheaval that surrounds him.
A timely look at the conflict between military and revolutionary movements The Dancer Upstairs is based on screenwriter Nicholas Shakespeare's 1997 novel of the same name which took its inspiration from actual events in Peru between 1980 and 1992 when Abimael Guzman (aka Chairman Gonzolo) led the Communist Party of Peru (often referred to as "Shining Path" in the media at the time) in an armed revolution against the Peruvian state led by the U.S.-backed President Alberto Fujimori who was dismissed by the Peruvian Congress in 2000 on the grounds of "moral incapacity." The filmmakers capture both the gritty realism of the country's poverty as well as the great wealth of its leaders during a particularly unstable period in this economically and politically divided nation but neither Malkovich nor Shakespeare offers easy answers to the problems of living in a political world driven by power and corruption on the one hand and terror on the other. They suggest--more intelligently--that we must open our eyes and understand the extremes on both sides if we are to make ethical choices as individuals.