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Death and the Maiden

Though apparent in his 2002 Oscar-winning film The Pianist, Roman Polanski always has been fascinated by claustrophobia and the absurd. He tends to be drawn to films about people's worlds getting smaller and smaller, as with The Tenant, and Repulsion, while much of his filmography can be seen as both dark comedy and horror at the same time. It's then fitting that he would take a small three-person, one-set play and turn it into a film. Death in the Maiden (1994) is set in an undefined Latin America city. Sigourney Weaver stars as Paullina Escobar, the wife of lawyer Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson), who's been appointed the head of the new government's war-crimes commission, meant to investigate the perpetrators of some of the last regime's more brutal fascist acts, of which Paullina was one of the victims. Gerardo's car gets a flat during a power outage, causing him to catch a lift with Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley). Though Paullina isn't introduced, she hears his voice, and feels that Dr. Miranda was the one who tortured her, playing Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" while doing so. At first she lets the doctor go, but when he returns with Geraldo's flat tire, Paullina exacts her revenge, tying him up and forcing him to confess under the threat of death — with her husband acting as the doctor's lawyer. But even with a gun to his head, Miranda doesn't budge his story. Even worse, Paullina has been known to be a delusional — she always was blindfolded when abused. Though some may find Polanski's personal history a little too connected to the material of Death and the Maiden, he's a born filmmaker and able to make the movie a compelling piece in spite of its staginess. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is that the piece takes a little too long to set up its premise. As he did in Sexy Beast, Ben Kingsley is totally magnetic to watch, nearly eclipsing both Weaver and Wilson; in fact, Weaver seems only to find her bearings on the character about halfway through the film, but by then she has perhaps the dramatic high point of her career as she coldly, for the first time, tells her husband in explicit detail exactly how she was abused. What must have appealed to Polanski's sense of humor is that, throughout the interrogation, Paullina and Geraldo become fascistic, using good cop/bad cop, bullying, and other tricks of the trade to get information out of the doctor, while the audience is unsure if Miranda is using the same defenses prisoners do on purpose — or because it's the truth. And if the conclusion is obvious, Kingsley's final speech more than makes up for it, as he reveals his inner workings. New Line's DVD release of Death and the Maiden features an anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) and 2.0 stereo audio. Trailer collection, keep-case.
—DSH



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