Monday, January 12, 2009

Death and the Maiden (1994)

Sad and serious and ultimately meaningful on many levels

This 1994 film was adapted from a play by Argentinean playwright Ariel Dorfman and was directed by Roman Polanski. Set in an unnamed South American country, three people are thrown together in an isolated house on a dark and stormy night. The woman, played by Sigourney Weaver is clearly troubled and sad. Her husband, played by Stuart Wilson, is late for dinner. Turns out he had a flat tire and a stranger helped him out. That stranger, who is a doctor, played by Ben Kingsley, soon befriends the husband. The woman thinks the stranger is the man who tortured her while she was a political prisoner many years before.

There is a new kinder and gentler government now, which is investigating atrocities from the past. The woman's husband is in charge of the investigation, which is basically focused on identifying bodies and is giving amnesty to many of the worst criminals. Naturally this complicates the situation.

What follows is not a simple story though because, throughout, questions are raised that have no easy answers. Is the doctor really the torturer or an innocent man? After all, it all happened at least ten or more years in the past and the woman has never actually seen her torturer's face as she had been blindfolded the whole time. The doctor declares his innocence. At times, he's even charming. But she has tied him up and is determined to get a confession out of him.

There are many interwoven themes. The basic one is wondering if the doctor is, indeed, the right man. But then there is the relationship between the husband and the wife. We discover he and his wife were both members of the revolution but only she was caught and tortured. He has been trying to make that up to her for their whole marriage. We also get to hear a lot about the details of the torture. It is chilling and disturbing and, even though the only violence in the film is against the suspect who is tied up, the woman's prison experience, which is only talked about and not shown, is excruciatingly painful to hear about.

There are other questions raised too. What happens to a society when it gives someone power over a helpless person? Now, we see the woman with power over the tied-up doctor. And we are forced to think about how this kind of power corrupts a whole society. This is a concept that is universal, as fresh today as it has always been. And the director certainly knows how to bring it out. All of the actors were sensational. I soon forgot they were performing and was completely swept into the story. I could feel the pain of all three characters as well as the horror of the electric shocks of the past.

The title comes from a string quartet by Franz Schubert called Death and the Maiden. This piece of music had been played during the woman's torture. She has found a tape of it in the doctor's car and plays it throughout. It helps to frame the action, right down to the film's excellent and satisfying conclusion.

I was surprised to discover that this film had won no significant awards and got little recognition when it was released. It wasn't even given a high rating from the critics. That's too bad. I think that it is an important film. I'm glad I discovered it though. It's sad and serious and ultimately meaningful on many levels. And I give it my very highest recommendation.

Death and the Maiden Trailer

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