By Doug Cummings
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Perhaps because of his own traumatic experiences, like the murder of his wife by the Manson family, director Roman Polanski's best films have centered on survivors and how they live through tragic events and the threat of chaos.
Polanski's new film, "Death and the Maiden," based on Ariel Dorfman's controversial play, is set in a recently liberated South American country. Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) is the wife of a politician, Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson). She is angry because he won't take a stronger stand against the violent crimes committed by the previous regime. Her anger is appropriate since she was brutally raped and tortured as a political prisoner 15 years before.
The Escobars live in a secluded beach house overlooking the crashing surf. One dark and stormy night, as the electricity fizzles out, Paulina becomes convinced that a stranger, Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), is her past torturer. She attacks him, ties him to a chair, and holds him at gunpoint to the shocked protests of her husband.
Paulina's disregard for officiality is fascinating because she's not really interested in justice. What "justice" could there be? Her rage ensues from a lonely world of unacknowledgement. Politically and personally, her sufferings have been swept under the rug for 15 years. But as a single candle burns through the night, the reality of her victimization will be unearthed.
As a play, the approach is
minimalist in style, one setting and three characters, but under the precise framings of Polanski, the movie is an atmospheric construction of shadowy claustrophobia and angular compositions. As in his previous movies like "Repulsion" and "The Tenant," Polanski's favorite elements are all here: psychological horror, a gruesome past, and intense isolation. He's a master in creating paranoia that traps its prey in domestic settings. The rain pounds on the window and the flame illuminates the sweaty faces.
The film's use of music is also effective. There was a string quartet by Schubert that was played during Paulina's torturing. She plays the music at high volume when she first ties Roberto up, and the violins stab the viewer with piercing screams.
The movie is about unveiling horrors, and Paulina's accusations are graphic and shocking. But the three actors are intensely good and exhibit violent emotions that make the details supplementary instead of sensationalistic.
"Death and the Maiden" is as atmospheric and concentrated as thrillers come. On the surface, it appears to question issues of revenge, but it finally looks beyond that. Polanski knows that someone who has endured incalculable suffering can never achieve true compensation. Brief intimations and facile condolences do not compensate for irreparable damage. Sooner or later the truth must be revealed.
"Death and the Maiden" starts Friday at Catalina Cinemas, 881-0616.
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