It's a measure of the success of Roman Polanski's screen adaption of Ariel Dorfman's suspenseful, provocative play Death and the Maiden that by the end of the film one is not as troubled by the concept of WASP-y Sigourney Weaver playing a Latin woman named Paulina Escobar as by the issues of guilt, innocence, revenge, punishment, and moral responsibility that the movie raises.
As the camera pans over a stretch of desolate countryside on a rainy night and comes to rest on an isolated house atop a cliff, an introductory title informs us the setting is "a country in South America, after the fall of the dictatorship...." (Playwright/co-screenwriter Dorfman is a Chilean citizen forced into exile following the 1973 coup that overthrew Salvador Allende). In addition to Weaver, the film features Stuart Wilson, a Brit, as Paulina's husband, Gerardo, and the Anglo-Indian dynamo Ben Kingsley as Dr. Roberto Miranda, the Good Samaritan who gives Gerardo a lift after Gerardo's car pops a flat tire. Once the pair gets to the Escobars' home, Paulina accuses the doctor of being the man who raped and tortured her during the dictatorship. It's not every day you see three very Anglo actors speaking English as they portray Spanish-speaking South Americans.
Even the commercial radio stations in this fictitious land broadcast in English, from the news programs that inform Paulina that the newly elected president has appointed Gerardo chairman of a human rights commission to investigate abuses carried out under the auspices of the fallen dictatorship, to the obnoxious heavy metal music that mysteriously blares from the speakers when electricity is restored to the Escobar house following a power outage. Compounding the confusion is the fact that not only do none of the characters so much as attempt to affect the slightest Latin accent, but Kingsley and Wilson, both of whom cut their teeth on the British stage and were members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, take pains to sound like a couple of yuppie drinking buddies from the American Midwest. It's as if the filmmakers said, "Well, we need Sigourney to get the financing, and no one's going to believe her with a Spanish accent, so fuck it. Let them all talk like gringos." Intentionally or not, the effect is surreal.
Once you get past the initial disorientation, however, Death and the Maiden grabs you and doesn't let go. The film is a complex marvel of compression and suspense. It works on one level as a compelling courtroom drama, sans courtroom. Paulina Escobar serves as prosecutor, her beleaguered and bewildered husband as defense attorney, and Dr. Miranda as the defendant. The audience becomes the jury charged with determining Miranda's guilt or innocence.
On another, metaphorical plane, Paulina is every victim of every totalitarian regime from Pinochet to Somoza to the Argentine military -- tormented, distraught, and seeking justice (and/or revenge, not necessarily the same thing). Gerardo represents the wishy-washy middle-class who just want to put it all behind them, who aren't sure who to believe or what to do once innocence or guilt has been established. And Dr. Miranda symbolizes the enigma of the accused: How do you know you've got the right guy? Was the mild-mannered doctor once a sadistic beast who subjected Paulina to unspeakable horrors, or is he (and, by extension, many of those accused of past human rights abuses) merely a sacrificial lamb who unfortunately crossed paths with a deranged woman bent on exorcising the demons of her past?
"What if, through some crazy miracle, he's really innocent?" Gerardo wonders.
"If he's innocent, then he's really fucked," his gun-toting wife replies in a response that should ring familiar to extremists on both sides.
Ambiguity is the order of the day in Death and the Maiden. And perhaps no living director is better qualified to exploit the potential for suspense (and dark humor) inherent in such a psychodramatic puzzle than Roman Polanski. Streamlined, claustrophobic, and intense, the film is his best work in years. The director, who knows firsthand about violence and living with its consequences, as well as about the difficulty of finding truth and justice in a courtroom, works wonders with a cast of three and a setting that is pretty much confined to one eerily candlelit house.
Ben Kingsley, whose majestic performance in the title role of 1982's Gandhi was also his motion picture acting debut, has been one of the big screen's most consistently praiseworthy thespians for a dozen years now. His work here as the medicine man accused by Paulina of raping and torturing her to the accompaniment of a tape of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" may be Kingsley's finest hour. His character's culpability or virtue is not revealed until the film's final minutes; Kingsley does a masterly job of emoting without giving away the big secret. While every actor in a three-character drama shoulders an enormous burden, Kingsley's role is the most challenging. After all he's the one who has to play most of his scenes tied to a chair, and many of those with his mouth taped shut. What the man says with just his eyes is more than most actors convey with no constrictions on their bodies or voices. Sigourney Weaver may be the star, but Kingsley's acting shines brightest.
While the actors and the director all deserve their share of kudos, screenwriters Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias should be singled out for their uncompromising script. In 1992 Mike Nichols mounted a stage production of Dorfman's play that recast it as a twisted love triangle and downplayed the broader dialectic; Dorfman and Yglesias wisely revived the narrative's political heart. Death and the Maiden makes a convincing case that healing cannot begin until the truth is known; perhaps only an author who acquired that wisdom the hard way could have spelled it out so vividly for the rest of us.
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