Death and the Maiden (1994)

The Principals: Director: Roman Polanski.  Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Stuart Wilson

The Premise:  It’s the dawn of a new day in “a small South American country” that’s just escaped dictatorship and emerged a democracy.  But old wounds have never fully healed for Paulina Escobar (Weaver) who was brutally tortured under the old regime.  She finds no cause for celebration or optimism in the country’s new human rights commission, or the fact that her husband, Gerardo, will be leading it.  It will only be investigating the claims of the dead, not the living, and she’s unable to find peace without justice.

But on this dark and rainy night, the past literally comes back to haunt her.  The fussy Dr. Roberto Miranda (Kingsley) shows up at their door, having rescued Gerardo from a flat tire. He professes to be an admirer of Gerardo.  But Paulina has met him before. He was one of the men who tortured her, “the worst one,” and she decides to exact revenge.  But is he really the man she thinks he is, or has she finally cracked? And even if she’s right, what do her actions make her?

Is It Good: It’s flawed but yes, it’s good.   It’s claustrophobic and nasty, and Weaver delivers one of the best performances of her career.  She’s a brittle and unpleasant woman, and you wouldn’t want to spend more than an hour or two with her, but she’s entirely sympathetic. What happened to her was horrific, and no one — not even her husband — has ever acknowledged what she suffered. She’s had to seethe and cope on her own.   We get glimpses of how messed up she is not by the way she smacks up Ben Kingsley, but by her choosing to eat her dinner in her bedroom closet.    It’s a sad image, one that stresses how these memories are hovering over Paulina’s shoulder, and it strengthens her credibility against Miranda.  How can she not know her abuser after all of these years? How would a person forget his voice, his mannerisms, and his very smell?

But Kingsley (despite an appalling choice of accent — one of the major flaws of the film) starts preying on you too.  He’s so weak and helpless. As he snuffles, sobs, and pleads, you have to wonder if there’s been a terrible mistake.  Maybe Paulina has snapped.  He honestly doesn’t seem to know what she’s talking about. Yet there’s something under the skin that suggests it’s all an act, a flicker to his eye and a quickness to violence that suggests he’s entirely capable of cruelty.

To further muddy the waters is Paulina’s husband, Gerardo.  He might even be the real villain of the piece. A weak waffler of a man, it’s impossible to see what the stoic Paulina has ever seen in him. There’s little of the nobility of the rebel in him (which seems to be the point) and it’s evident he’s all talk, ideals, and little action.  One might even say he’s an appeaser. He shows that he’s willing to look the other way again and again — for the new government, for Paulina, and for his own advancement.

Is It Worth A Look: Definitely.  As I said, it’s not perfect. Death and the Maiden is really stiffly presented — it screams “This was adapted from a play! — and it veers into some corny melodrama.  (There’s a love scene at the beginning that seems ripped from a Lifetime movie, particularly because of its bombastic score.) Kingsley’s choice of accent is bizarre and distracting. Wilson is really weak and one-note in a lot of scenes.  (The look on his face when he discovers Paulina’s choice of prisoner gag is pretty priceless though.) There are a few talky moments that could have used another take because they ring a little false.

But it’s a film that will stick with you.  It doesn’t seem so as it plays out, but it’s pretty nightmarish, and it asks tough questions about truth and justice.  We often say “If I could just get my hands on …!” and seeing that very scenario makes you shudder. Yet you also cheer her on. Her initial plans for Miranda are laughable, but they’re also real, the kind of things we cook up in our desperation to salve our pain.

There’s an extra layer of horror and weirdness to the film because of it’s director.  You always have to open that can of worms when you’re talking with Polanski, and Death and the Maiden is a screaming red flag of psychoanalysis.  Polanski is definitely exercising some guilt and demons with this film.   Obviously, it’s cheap and easy to play that game sometimes, but even beyond his crimes, Polanski has an awful past that’s littered with ghosts of two political regimes.  There’s little doubt as to what drew him to the material, and the nature of Miranda’s crimes only make it that much more uncomfortable and strange.

Random Anecdotes:  Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss, and Gene Hackman did the original play on Broadway. It was directed by Mike Nichols. What I wouldn’t give to see that film!