Film Review: The Dancer Upstairs

‘The Dancer Upstairs’ is primarily a love story amidst the violent and complex political climate of a Latin American country. Although the specific country where the film is set is not stated, there are clear similarities between the film and the Marxist group Sendero Luminoso’s (Shining Path) attempt at a Maoist revolution in Peru. The film’s revolutionary leader Ezekiel suffered from psoriasis, was captured in a ballet studio after a police search through the household trash and was displayed to the public in a cage and prison garb just as Sendero’s leader Abimael Guzmán was in 1992. While the director, Malkovich modeled the story on Peru’s political history, the film is not a strictly historical depiction of the events surrounding the revolution. Rather than getting caught up in details Malkovich decided to focus on individual people and how the dynamics and violence of the revolution affected them in their day to day lives. The main love story between Augustin and Yolanda serves to illustrate how two people with ideologies at polar opposites are still able to fall in love.

Perhaps the main element missing from the film is a background into the Sendero Luminoso movement and how it developed among Peruvian politics. Like Ezekiel, Guzmán was the group’s inspirational leader whose origins were as a left-wing philosophy lecturer in the city of Ayacucho. The Sendero movement emerged after an ideological split occurred in the Peruvian Communist Party. Guzmán advocated a pro-Chinese rather than pro-Soviet line and moved into the countryside to develop a revolution led by the peasants. While planning began in the 1960s, Sendero did not evolve into a violent revolutionary group until 1980. The violence of the group is represented well in the film, being graphic and indiscriminate in its targets. During Sendero’s peak, actual figures for deaths have been placed at around 70,000 but this includes deaths caused by government forces and the other revolutionary group Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Those affected by the violence spanned from government officials and soldiers to young peasant children, such as the small boy who became a suicide bomber for Ezekiel in the film.

It is clear from the film that the violence of this time in Peru did not only spring from Sendero fighters. The military and government is portrayed as corrupt and ruling with an iron fist and while Augustin works as a public employee he too harbors feelings of anger towards the military for confiscating his father’s farm. Government involvement in violence is hinted at in the film and we now know that the Fujimori regime in the 1990s was responsible for various human rights abuses. Ironically, Guzmán is now serving his prison term concurrently with President Fujimori and Vladimiro Montesinos, the head of the intelligence service under Fujimori. The film’s story does not focus on these specific details but instead serves to illustrate the tone and oppression felt under an autocratic and authoritarian rule. At times it almost feels that Augustin is working at cross purposes to the government and indeed this is probably how some law enforcement officials felt when combating Sendero violence.

One of the less accurate depictions in the film appears to be the native Indian involvement and participation in Sendero’s revolution. On Augustin’s trip to his hometown, he discusses Sendero with local Indian peasants, who describe Ezekiel as “the wind in every tree”. It is true the movement was based on a Maoist idea of peasant revolution and in many cases Sendero established viable communities and worked to protect local Indian populations. In reality the Indian and peasant population were often taken advantage of and manipulated into joining the ranks of their terrorist group. It has been reported that children were forced into guerilla combat and ultimately the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating Peru’s internal conflict reported that 75 percent of those killed spoke Quecha as their mother tongue. It was also reported that not all died at the hands of Sendero with many deaths attributed to the Peruvian military and government sponsored death squads in their counter insurgency efforts. Unfortunately it was the peasants that suffered most as they struggled to maintain a delicate equilibrium in which they could satisfy the demands of both Sendero and Fujimori’s government. Massacres were carried out in Barrios Altos, La Cantuta, Lucanamarca and Hauyllo by both sides and resulted in the deaths of many innocent Indians and peasants. As is too often the case it was those ordinary people that the extreme Communist party was attempting to liberate that ultimately lost their lives in the revolution.

While the film may have romanticized peasant perception of the revolution, through the love story and character of Augustin we are able to see how penetrating the revolutionary conflict was in Peruvian society. Augustin is determined to end Sendero’s violent campaign but he is also clearly not in agreement with the government and how the military is dealing with the crisis. His village priest was murdered by Sendero but his father’s farm was also taken by the military. He is affected by both parties and faces an internal struggle to follow the law of a corrupt government while at the same time wanting to end the violence of Ezekiel’s group. By focusing on the love story, the film is also able to illustrate how illogical the ideology and motivation of terrorists can be. Both Augustin and Yolanda fall in love without knowing the background of one another. The fact that these two were able to fall in love despite clear ideological differences shows the absurdity of the situation. Yolanda’s final rejection of Augustin does also illustrate how passionate she and her comrades were. Unfortunately Sendero was so determined in their revolution that in the end their war against the establishment crippled the economy and infrastructure of Peru and left thousands of innocent people displaced and dead.