936full-death-and-the-maiden-posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Instant and/or through the iTunes Store? Death and the Maiden is not available on Netflix Instant, but it is available for rent through the iTunes Store.

In the last couple of years, the world has witnessed major political upheavals resulting in regime change in the Middle East in countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, and what I expect to soon be in Syria. Frequently, the regimes being replaced tend to be autocratic and they have a reputation for ruling their populations with an iron fist. When these regimes fall, the members of these political parties, especially those with reputations of meting out harsh punishments to citizens, try to get as far as possible from a vengeful citizenry looking for blood. Many get caught, but some disappear and live out the rest of their lives in obscurity in different countries. The question posed by Death and the Maiden is what if you were a former political dissident who was tortured and raped under the old regime and you now run into the person responsible for making your life a living hell? What would you do?

Adapted from the 1990 play written by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman and directed by acclaimed director Roman Polanski, Death and the Maiden stars Sigourney Weaver as a former political dissident, Paulina Escobar, Ben Kingsley as the man who may or may not have tortured and raped her, Dr. Miranda, and Stuart Wilson as a prominent civil rights lawyer and Paulina’s husband, Gerardo Escobar. The film entirely takes place in an unnamed South American country (however, the story evokes the dictatorship of Chilean general Augusto Pinochet) on a dark and stormy night at Paulina and Escobar’s residence. As Paulina waits for her husband to get home, the storm cuts off the power. Gerardo finally arrives home, but Paulina notices that he got a ride from a stranger after his car got a flat tire. Later that night, the stranger comes back to the Escobar residence to return Gerardo’s spare tire that was left in the stranger’s car. It is then that Paulina becomes convinced that the stranger, Dr. Miranda, is the man who tortured and raped her when she was a young political activist. Paulina takes Dr. Miranda hostage and exacts her revenge on him. However, is Dr. Miranda really the same man who tortured and raped Paulina or is Paulina simply crazy?

Despite having all of the elements of a classic Polanski film (tension, power play, and great performances), Death and the Maiden surprisingly made little impression on audiences and critics when it was released in 1994. During this time period, Polanski seemed to have been in a creative rut and most of his films were failing to reach the heights that his classics from the 1970’s did. Death and the Maiden was the best effort he had made in a long time.

A little background history on director Roman Polanski will give you a better appreciation of this film and the reasons why Polanski probably decided to adapt the play. If you have ever read Jerzy Kosinski’s harrowing and controversial book, The Painted Bird, then you will have a good idea of what Polanski’s childhood was like. If you have not, Polanski’s childhood can best be described as “hell on earth.” As a child in Krakow, Poland, which was overtaken by Nazi Germany, Polanski witnessed the mass persecution of the Polish Jews. He lost his mother in Auschwitz and became separated from his father in a concentration camp before the two eventually reunited. As a young child, witnessing the horrible depths that a human being can resort to undoubtedly made a scarring impression on Polanski’s outlook on life. Polanski appears to have a pessimistic view of human relationships and this is reflected in the themes of his films. Although he deals more directly with this theme in the semi-autobiographical The Pianist, Death and the Maiden acts as a sort of prelude to the later The Pianist. The film serves as a therapeutic philosophic discussion on how and why people in this world commit atrocious acts of human suffering and, more importantly, whether they can be forgiven for their actions.

Death and the Maiden is a heavily driven character piece that takes place in the course of 1 night and in 1 location. There are only three characters in the film so the most important job for any director adapting this play is to cast strong actors for these roles. Polanski almost pulls this off. As much as I love Sigourney Weaver, she overplays her part and hams it up to the point where in some scenes that are especially intended to elicit emotion from the audience (e.g. when Paulina describes her ordeals under the doctor to her husband), you can’t help but laugh at Weaver’s overacting. I know this is cliché, but Paulina’s role required the skills of someone like Meryl Streep. Someone who can inhabit the character and make you believe you are watching a real person rather than an actor. I don’t mean to deride Sigourney Weaver’s talents, but I judge her on a different scale than Meryl Streep. What has always made Sigourney Weaver appealing is not her talents but rather her screen presence. Much the same way that makes us like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, or Julia Roberts.

It should be worth noting that the introduction of Paulina Escobar in the movie should be required viewing by any screenwriting student. Without using any dialogue, the film introduces Paulina by showing her waiting for her husband to arrive home for dinner. While she waits, she overhears on the radio that her husband has just accepted the President’s offer to be appointed to a Human Rights Commission. She appears very interested in this news item, which indicates that her husband did not tell her about this development before it hit the news. More significantly, we then see Paulina tear off a piece of chicken she has prepared and with her hands grab some salad. She then walks over with her plate to a closet and eats her food while sitting on the floor. From this, we are able to surmise that Paulina spent some time in prison. Finally, when she sees a strange car (that unknown to her has her husband in it) heading to her house, she blows out the candles and grabs a gun. Again, without any dialogue being spoken, we are able to get a good picture of who Paulina Escobar is just from watching her in these first few minutes.

Fortunately, the same cannot be said of Ben Kingsley and Stuart Wilson. Both deliver masterful performances that expertly balance gallows humor and drama. What can I say about Ben Kingsley that has not already been said by so many others? Sir Kingsley is one of this generation’s most accomplished actors who, no matter what a role requires, he blends into it like a chameleon and consistently gives an unforgettable performance. Here, he convincingly throws off the audience from being able to determine whether or not he really is the same doctor that Paulina claims him to be. Part of the fun of the movie stems from trying to pick up on clues indicating his character’s true identity. Below, I have provided a YouTube video of Kingsley’s speech at the very end of the movie. This is a MAJOR, I repeat, MAJOR spoiler so if you have not seen this film and you plan to watch it (which I recommend you do), DO NOT watch the below video. The reason I have provided the video is to showcase Kingsley’s amazing performance and the one he gives at the end ranks among the very best he has done in his career.

As for Stuart Wilson, most Americans probably do not know who he is, but he is much better known to British audiences (The Strauss Family, Space:1999, I, Claudius, Prime Suspect, Hot Fuzz). In the U.S., Wilson has primarily played villains (Lethal Weapon 3, The Mask of Zorro), but unfortunately we have not seen his talents be utilized nowhere near as well in this country. Death and the Maiden provides Wilson with a meaty role and we get to see him absolutely shine on screen. As Gerardo Escobar, the civil rights lawyer appointed by the President to head up a Human Rights Commission, Wilson displays his character’s conflict between his commitment to justice and the democratic process versus his urge to resort to the same brutal measures the deposed dictator used on his wife and other political dissidents. Throughout the film, Escobar goes back and forth between believing his wife and finding her crazy. Wilson has the least flashiest role between the three actors, but he is just as compelling to watch as Kingsley, which is a high bar to meet.

When you consider the story’s single location and the fact that the success of the film depends almost entirely on the actors’ performances, it is easy to discount Polanski’s contribution to this film. However, it would be a big mistake to do so. So much of this film’s success hinges on the creation of suspense. Polanski effectively creates this suspense through music (Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden music), the desolation and harshness of the landscape where Paulina and Gerardo’s seaside house is located, a dark and stormy night that causes a power outage, and candle lighting inside the house to create more contrast and shadows. Polanski also uses a lot of close-up shots to add to the claustrophobic effect in the movie.

Being a play, Death and the Maiden suffers from stage-y dialogue and a lot of exposition. These are the drawbacks filmmakers frequently encounter when adapting a stage play. To get around this, sometimes they resort to translating the exposition into separate scenes and revising the dialogue to sound more realistic. Polanski does neither. When Paulina describes in detail her ordeal to her husband, Polanski does not cut to a scene showing the tortures Paulina underwent. He instead has the actors describe them. I was not bothered by the exposition, but given a choice, I would have preferred Polanski to have cut to a separate scene showing what Paulina describes. At the same time, despite its stagey-ness, the dialogue is sharp and at times very witty. For a film that primarily consists of a whole lot of talking, never once did I feel the pace of the film to be too slow and that speaks to the quality of the dialogue.

Death and the Maiden is an underrated film that intelligently explores the motivations behind the evils that men do. Paulina represents the base desire to exact blind revenge upon her torturer while Gerardo represents the angel on her shoulder and the voice of reason. The final outcome will surprise you, but it also shows that despite being haunted by his childhood experiences, time and reflection have allowed Roman Polanski to reconcile his animal instincts with a more objective and understanding perspective on man’s evil side.

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