January 27, 1995 in Seven

Subtly Done, ‘Death And The Maiden’ Is A First-Rate Suspense Flick

By The Spokesman-Review
 

‘Death and the Maiden’

*** 1/2

Theaters: Magic Lantern and Lyons Ave.

Cast: Directed by Roman Polanski, it stars Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley and Stuart Wilson

Running time: 102 minutes

Rated R

The setting of “Death and the Maiden” is a nameless South American country. But the screenwriter is Chilean, so it’s easy to imagine Chile as the setting.

The film features only three characters. But since the events dramatized have occurred in reality to hundreds of thousands of people, the characters seem universal.

The story is fiction.

But is it? Really?

Based on the play by Ariel Dorfman, coscreenwriter with Rafael Yglesias, “Death and the Maiden” is the story of Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver), her husband Gerardo (Stuart Wilson) and the man who comes to visit, Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley).

It’s an auspicious occasion. Gerardo, a lawyer and former political activist, has been named a special investigator by his country’s new president. His charge is to ferret out those who participated in death-squad activities during the country’s former military regime.

Paulina is troubled by this news. As an activist herself, she was ruthlessly tortured. And though the crime occurred 15 years before, it remains as much a part of her everyday life as do the scars on her body.

Enter Roberto, who gives Gerardo, the victim of a flat tire, a ride home. Roberto drives the lawyer to his isolated ocean-front house then later returns with the tire.

It is during this second visit that Paulina realizes something: Recognizing Roberto’s voice, she remembers him as the doctor who attended her torture session.

She decides to seek justice, to force Robert into confessing his crimes. And so she takes charge, pistol in hand.

But there is a problem. Paulina is obviously a disturbed woman. Can she be trusted to know the truth after all the time that has passed?

And Roberto, such a seemingly decent man, is so convincing in his denials.

Stuck in the middle is Gerardo, whom Paulina appoints as special investigator. She wants a confession, she says, or Roberto dies. And a long night looms ahead for all.

Directed by Roman Polanski, “Death and the Maiden” is a riveting politicalpsychological drama. As effective on film as it must be on stage, Polanski’s movie doesn’t have the static feel of many filmed plays.

Credit part of that to the actors. Weaver has never been better, Kingsley is simply one of the best film actors the world has to offer and Wilson, a British stage star, holds his own with ease. Watching their ensemble work is like peeking in on a private conversation.

The material is strong, too, of course. Dorfman-Yglesias pose questions about the nature of justice, victimization, retribution and the nature of a world in such crimes occur.

But Polanski makes it work. Displaying none of the self-gratifying sleaze of his last feature, “Bitter Moon,” Polanski weaves a spell of mystery that continually puts the viewer on the defensive: Who is telling the truth here, he asks, and what is truth anyway?

You may not find a plausible answer until the very final frames. Which is exactly the way it should be.

xxxx

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