Death and the Maiden (1994) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R, for violence, language and strong depictions of torture and rape     
Running Time: 103 min.

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Stuart Wilson
Director:  Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Rafael Yglesias, Ariel Dorfman

Review published March 12, 2003

Based on Ariel Dorfman's play, who also co-wrote the screen play, Death and the Maiden is an engaging, multi-textured story about revenge, passion, and how abuse of power is seductive, especially if put into the wrong hands. Although a three-actor film, they each represent a different facet of the country they live in at large, with one man conflicted between allowing brutality in a quest for justice and in giving absolute rights to someone who may be a rotten scoundrel. Directed by the great Roman Polanski (Frantic, The Ninth Gate), it's really the themes and dangerous situations in the story that keep the interest, and he applies a less-stylized approach, opting for a more realism, letting his fine actors provide the performances to keep it all moving.

Sigourney Weaver (Dave, Alien 3) stars as Paulina Escobar, wife of Gerardo Escobar (Wilson, The Age of Innocence), a soon-to-be bigwig in the new democratic government of a South American nation which recently underwent a revolution to overthrow its brutal dictatorial regime. She awaits her long overdue husband during a thunderstorm, and he arrives very late and very wet, having gotten a flat tire. Luckily for him, he was able to get a ride from a kind passerby, a man who claims to admire Gerardo very much. He is invited in for a drink, but Paulina is scared for her life, thinking their visitor might be the mad doctor who was involved in torturing and raping her as a young woman who protested the previous regime. She decides to exact revenge and hold the man captive, revealed to be Dr. Roberto Miranda (Kingsley, Schindler's List), but he vehemently denies any involvement with her past, claiming to be out of the country during that period. Gerardo doesn't know if he's lying or if his wife is crazy, as he tries to get out the truth before someone gets hurt or killed.

While Death and the Maiden does feature some interesting drama, it's a bit gimmicky, and the cast, while undoubtedly fine actors, seem a bit out of place in their respective roles. It also feels very much like a filmed play, with almost all of the action taking place in the confines of the Escobar's home. It isn't a bad film, it just never does rise very much into a truly satisfying whole, despite the very sensational verbal re-enactments of some very horrific torture, rape and abuse.

Fans of the actors should be pleased at some fine performances, as well as Polanski's staunchest of followers. Death and the Maiden is a complex film given simple treatment, and makes for worthwhile viewing for its food for thought and good, tense dramatics. Be prepared for some uncomfortable, graphic descriptions of torture, as this is not a watered-down thriller. It's so solid in every department, it's almost a disappointment that such wonderful talent doesn't result in a better film overall.

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo