Death and the Maiden (Roman Polanski, 1994)

I’ve always had a kind of liking I can’t really explain for courtroom dramas.  Just something about the accused being front and center while the accuser (or counsel representing the accuser) faces off with the accused one-on-one, simply using words to try to get to the truth, is just appealing to me.  It’s a battle of wits that I sometimes find more compelling than any battle with guns or swords or fists, and I think that courtroom-style battle of wits is done best when the “truth” is left ambiguous, so you’re basically looking at things from the outside, or at least from the point of view of prosecutor or defender, rather than accuser and accused.  You’re simply presented with the testimonies and evidence and left to make your own judgment.  Roman Polanski takes the courtroom premise and puts a neat little spin on using Ariel Dorfman’s play, where the “courtroom” is an isolated house on the shore in an unnamed South American country, the accused is a good samaritan neighbor, and husband and wife are makeshift defender and prosecutor, respectively.  Does it work?  For the most part, yes, though not without a hitch, but definitely intriguing enough to keep me interested, so I’ll take it.

Clearly Polanski wants to make an impression from shot one and establish Sigourney Weaver as a paranoid near-mental wreck, pulling out a handgun at the first sign that a car’s coming or eating her dinner in the closet, all set to, naturally, a dark and stormy night.  Immediately we’re intrigued, and that intrigue becomes utter confusion when we see this strange woman break down as her politician husband has drinks and chats with a charming neighbor in the next room, sneak out of the house, and steal the strange man’s car.  Then, confusion becomes bewilderment as she returns, bloodies the drunk neighbor, and ties him to a chair.  And finally, bewilderment becomes understanding as she explains, calmly yet clearly in an absolute internal rage, that she believes this man to be the doctor who tortured and raped her 15 years earlier when she was a political prisoner.  And now, court is in session, as Ben Kingsley’s Dr. Miranda stands accused of rape and torture, Weaver’s Paulina Escobar isn’t just the prosecutor but pretty much judge, jury, and executioner, and her husband Gerardo is left to be the confused outsider and makeshift defender for Dr. Miranda.  Clearly it’s he-said she-said as Paulina clearly craves blood and Dr. Miranda steadfastly proclaims his innocence, leaving us to decide who’s telling the truth.  We’re the jury, because all we see are what Paulina tells us and what Dr. Miranda tells us, and how, for example, the good doctor’s composure might indicate whether or not he’s actually telling the truth.  A lesser director would’ve gone to a grotesque, overwrought, and completely unnecessary flashback of Paulina’s cruel torture as she explains it to her husband in “her chambers” (a.k.a. the front porch), but Polanski knows what he’s doing in keeping to a minimal, truly stage play-like style.  We simply hear her “testimony” and are left to imagine the horror she went through, and to use this testimony to judge Dr. Miranda.  It keeps the emphasis on these three characters right here and now and how they can each change over the course of a single night, and the movie’s all the better for it.

There are moments when Sigourney Weaver is wonderful as the unstable and enraged Paulina, distraught over meeting the man she perceives to have tortured her and also bloodthirsty in carrying out a long and drawn-out faux trial (not to mention basically emasculating her more level-headed husband in cruelly presiding over the proceedings).  Her description of what was done to her seemed genuine and tragic, to the point where you can understand her rage and even sympathize a little, even as she takes the law into her own hands.  But, to me she was too angry and too distressed a character, so that she was one-dimensional.  Clearly she smells blood and sees Dr. Miranda as the guilty party and won’t be convinced otherwise, but even then I see no moral conflict in this person (at least until the brilliant final scene), no question in her of whether or not what she’s doing is right.  I would’ve liked to see more of a conflict in this woman, especially since she’s clearly heading down the evil path of delighting in torture just as her own torturer had fifteen years before. Wasn’t exactly the most graspable character I’ve ever seen.

Hers is a performance of what’s really unbelievable power in bits and spurts, but like I said ultimately one-dimensional, so she’s not who I grasp on to.  The performance I really grasp onto is Ben Kingsley’s.  Here’s a man we initially see as a good samaritan helping Paulina’s husband Gerardo with a flat tire, and he’s charming, friendly, and has a good sense of humor.  Immediately, we like this man…which is why his being beaten on the head and tied up, and gagged with Paulina’s underpants is so unsettling, because we’ve come to know this man as a pretty nice guy while this woman kidnapping him is basically some crazy bitch.  Here’s where the man changes, and we begin to see (maybe because of Paulina’s influence on us) what might be a ruse, and a monster hiding behind the mask of a kindly and frightened doctor.  All the evidence that Paulina recognizes is there, after all…his voice, his smell, his expressions, that tape of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” that she heard so often as she was raped.  For basically the entire night Dr. Miranda comes off as the frightened bystander at the mercy of this ravenous woman, but we see tiny little inklings in his manner and what he says that he might or might not be who he says he is, using his guile and influence on Paulina’s husband (basically his defense attorney) to wiggle his way out of this.  We never quite know until the end whether or not he’s guilty, but what a shifty and suspicious character he is.  It all comes to a head by morning, as Paulina is about to carry out her sentence and Ben Kingsley’s doctor gives an absolutely brilliant monologue that makes us all question the concepts of morality, forgiveness, and finding the capacity for evil in oneself despite any attempt to resist it.  It certainly goes above and beyond a typical ‘whodunit’ ending, and it’s certainly deeper than what really was dull and boring set-up dialogue between Paulina and Gerardo early on, discussing the importance of democracy overcoming the odds and all that jazz.  It all amounts to a movie with moments of formulaic  and really mind-numbing character introductions/dialogue but also some brilliant dialogue, and a movie who’s flawed protagonist is too one-dimensional, the perceived “villain” is the most compelling character by far, and poor Gerardo is left in the corner…kind of an empty character there to be the stock voice of reason and middleground between accuser and accused.  Very uneven, but a cool little movie otherwise. 🙂



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