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Death and the Maiden

Directed by Roman Polanski. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Stuart Wilson. (1994, R, 103 min.)

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 3, 1995

Adapted from the stage play by Ariel Dorfman, this spare, hideously intense film is Polanski's version of a cinematic roller coaster: up, down, sideways, it leaves your heart pounding and your palms clammy and it's very, very disturbing. Set in an unnamed South American country, the film centers around Paulina Escobar (Weaver), a woman who, 15 years earlier, was tortured and raped by the since-deposed governmental regime. Weaver plays the character straight, focusing on the inner demons that haunt her to this day. When the power goes out one stormy night at her isolated, peninsula household, she's quick to light candles and crank up the portable radio while waiting for her husband Gerardo (Wilson) to come home. Soon, a strange car pulls up in front of the house and she frantically douses the flames, grabs a pistol, and cowers, terrified, behind a curtain. Her horrifying experiences at the hands of the former junta have left her a paranoid shell. The car, as it turns out, belongs to Dr. Robert Miranda (Kingsley), a stranger who gave her husband a lift home in the storm. When she hears the doctor's voice, however, she recognizes it as belonging to her chief torturer, the man who viciously savaged her time after time, years ago. Turning the table on her alleged tormentor, she knocks him unconscious, ties him to a chair, and puts him on trial with the confused aid of Gerardo, a prominent lawyer who, coincidentally enough, has recently been named to head a commission on human rights violations during the previous government. The question, of course, is this: Is Paulina mad, lashing out at this pitiably helpless stranger in the night just because she's finally cracked? Or is Dr. Miranda indeed her grand inquisitor, her nightmare from the past inexplicably delivered to her doorstep, awaiting punishment? To his credit, Polanski -- and, to an even greater degree, Weaver and Kingsley -- keep you guessing up to the very end. Weaver proves what most of us have known all along, that she's an Oscar-caliber actor capable of more than battling aliens and messing around with gorillas. With only three characters in the whole film, each part is vitally important to the story, and it's a joy (albeit a nerve-wracking one) to watch Kingsley, Wilson, and Weaver interact. Polanski's direction is equally powerful, his editing quick, sure, and flawless. Death and the Maiden is a streamlined razor-ride of a movie: taut, riveting, and a psychological horror show that will leave nail-marks in your palms for days afterwards.
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