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Paulina Escobar is a political activist whose husband is a prominent lawyer in an unnamed South American country just out of a dictatorship. One day a storm forces her husband to ride home with a neighbor. That chance encounter brings up demons from her past, as she is convinced that the neighbor (Dr. Miranda) was part of the old fascist regime that tortured and raped her, while blindfolded. Paulina takes him captive to determine the truth. Paulina is torn between her psychological repressions and somber memory, Gerardo is torn between his wife and the law, and Dr. Miranda is forced to endure captivity while husband and wife seek out the uncertain truth about the clouded past. Written by
Henry G. Herron <email@example.com>
"Death and the Maiden" begins in a purposely disorienting way--a woman walks around her secluded, South American villa, preparing dinner, when the power suddenly goes out. Her husband is returned home by a stranger after his car gets a flat; later, after assuaging his wife's spastic bouts of unexplained paranoia, the stranger returns with the husband's spare tire. The husband, wanting to reward the man's generosity, invites him in for a drink. The wife, who is extremely on edge, escapes the house undetected and steals the stranger's car, pushing it off a cliff and into the ocean below. After this, the film settles down into a three-character psychodrama of the highest order.
Roman Polanski, a director who can mine tension with a bare minimum of means, uses deliberate lighting, specific camera angles, and a well-paced narrative to create a film where the suspense is endlessly being ratcheted up a notch, often in ways that are quite surprising. The wife, Paulina (Sigourney Weaver), suspects the stranger (Ben Kingsley) of raping and torturing her years ago; her husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), is a lawyer who is enlisted to get the man's confession. The game of psychological cat-and-mouse that ensues is absorbing.
Both Kingsley and Wilson fare well in their roles, but it is Weaver who energizes the film. Her performance is absolutely (this deserves all caps) RUTHLESS, filled with moments of raging violence, icy detachment, and degradation (emphasized in graphic recollections of torture); if you thought Ellen Ripley was fearless in the face of the Queen Alien, "Death and the Maiden" shows an altogether different kind of tough exterior for the actress. In a way, I was reminded of the graphic revenge that took place in the infamous rape drama "I Spit on Your Grave"; while "Death and the Maiden" is superior, it is just as similarly driven (though the rape and torture is left to our imaginations), and its psychological edge, matched with top-drawer performances, moves it further from a 'filmed play' and into more visceral terrain. And, as he's so good at doing, Polanski keeps us guessing till the very end.
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