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"The Dancer Upstairs" is the best film I've seen so far in 2003.

It has suspense that is almost Hitchcockian, violence that truly shocks, enormous emotional restraint, unabashed subtlety and literacy and a cumulative power that winds up to be devastating.

Truth demands at this point that I make clear that John Malkovich's debut as a director hasn't, by a long shot, been universally praised this way by movie critics. But it's that rare film that so much exceeded my expectations that I wanted to celebrate, not just for audiences but for movies. Its virtues, I think, are as subtle and peculiar as its methods.

Truth probably also demands that I confess that I may be responding this way because "The Dancer Upstairs" is the exact opposite of everything commercial that blockades the great American megaplex during the movie summer. It is serious, contemplative, wry, quiet and pitilessly grown-up.

In his characteristically aloof, defiant and idiosyncratic way, Malkovich, I think, has made the best directorial debut by any American actor since Robert Redford's "Ordinary People" and Warren Beatty's "Reds" (Beatty's previous film "Heaven Can Wait" doesn't count because it was co-directed by Buck Henry).

It's as if Malkovich has rethought the movies of his era and concentrated only on what he cares about, jettisoning the rest (which, in this case, involves the routine cinematographic and editing flourishes that abound in the work of film school types).

It's based on a Conradian novel by Nicholas Shakespeare who also wrote the script but with nothing resembling slavish fidelity to his novel.

It's about an ambitious and dedicated cop in a country (loosely based on Peru) beset by the increased stirrings of revolutionary terrorism. An unknown revolutionary known as Ezequiel has put aside his copy of Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" to inflame all manner of blood-soaked unrest. It begins, apparently, with the sudden appearance of all sorts of dead dogs hung from lampposts with written notes pledging allegiance to Ezequiel.

Ordinary destinations are destroyed by suicide bombers. Even in our world suddenly worried sick by terrorism, some of these scenes are genuinely shocking, not only for their surprise but for their revelation of those who carry out these suicide missions. To stage, in this decadent era, completely unexpected and morally horrifying violence in a movie is a remarkable feat and yet this movie does it repeatedly.

While all of this is going on, the cop is slowly falling in love with his daughter's ballet teacher (Laura Morante). She is the soulful opposite of his beautiful and sensual, but vapid, wife. There is a courtliness and an emotional ambiguity here which is worlds away from the hormonal lurchings and compulsions we have come to think of as love and desire in movies.

The movie is in three threads: a political thriller, a love story and a police procedural. Their convergence is mesmerizing,horrifying and utterly resistant to movie cliche.

True to form, Malkovich ends it all with a scene set to Nina Simone's late-life version of Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" (currently available only on a disc from Spain) that simply refuses to cut off before Simone's shattering version is finished. Malkovich holds his camera on his dramatic climax beyond all reason, as if to say "go ahead. I dare you to tell me I'm being sentimental."

He's not. He is, in fact, giving his anything-but-sentimental film a profound ending that may well stay with you long after you leave the theater.

Extraordinary in its decidedly odd way, simply extraordinary.


STARRING: Javier Bardem and Laura Morante

DIRECTOR: John Malkovich

RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes

RATING: R for nudity and sudden violence

THE LOWDOWN: Love, violence and revolution in a Latin-American country in a famous actor's directorial debut.


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