The Dancer Upstairs (2002), directed by John Malkovich

the dancer upstairs posterTerrorism is very much a part of the world’s landscape at this point in history. Terrorist attacks occur not only in Israel, but in the United States, France, and Belgium among other countries. The world is a scary place, and many are trying to figure out what is the intellectual and emotional appeal of this aberrant behavior, which destabilizes the world. The Dancer Upstairs is a quiet, thoughtful, and tense film that gives us some understanding of the philosophical and practical motives that drive terrorists in the modern world.

Detective Augustin Rejas searches for a mysterious President Ezekiel, who is behind a series of terrorist acts committed by the have-nots against the corrupt government of an unnamed Latin America government. Ezekiel’s methods are brutal and many innocents die. Although no manifesto for revolution is written, it is clear that Ezekiel believes that anarchy will force the creation of a new government free of corruption and be more responsive to the needs of the people.

Rejas himself was a victim of the Marxist government that confiscated his father’s coffee farm, but he chose to find another career instead of challenging the regime. Now his task as a police officer is to find the terrorist Ezekiel and bring him to justice. This takes years of painstaking police work as his team slowly unravels the mystery of Ezekiel and his extremist followers, which include highly impressionable children whom he enlists as surrogate assassins for his cause.

Random executions, some committed by children and some by adults, perpetrated over several years rattle the state and create fear in the citizens, and this is exactly what Ezekiel wants to do. To combat the wave of terror that grows in intensity over time, the government resorts to the army to keep order; but this only drives the people away from the government, which they already see as corrupt.

As Rejas builds his case, we see that Ezekiel is a terrorist with mixed motivations. He stages parties for his supporters and takes sexual advantage of willing acolytes. For him, revolution is not just political; it is a cover for his base instincts as well. Regrettably his followers do not see his dark side, only his political charisma.

Ezekiel does not publicly reveal what drives him to wreak havoc on the nation’s institutions and innocent bystanders. In clandestine settings, he uses words to provoke the emotions of the downtrodden; not to appeal to their reason. His audience primarily consists of Marxist intellectuals, impressionable young women, and local Indians who are convinced that violence is necessary in order to liberate their country from a corrupt military regime.

In stark contrast to the terrorist leader Ezekiel is the Jewish notion of a prophet-leader. Here, the prophet-leader must be virtuous. Maimonides, the great medieval sage, states that the prophet-leader must also be very wise and never be overcome by natural desires. He must see the big picture and evaluate situations from the aspect of eternity, for God is at the center of his emotional and moral universe.

The Dancer Upstairs gives us an insight into the multitude of motives in the mind of a terrorist who commits evil not only for ideological reasons, but also to gain personal advantages. Additionally, it unsettles us by its portrayal of the ease with which an evil man can convert the naive into willing accomplices to his morally abhorrent behaviors.

Detective Rejas, through patient analysis, uncovers the contradictions that exist in the psyche of a vicious madman who wants to destabilize society through anarchic means. The film, a cautionary lesson to free men who want to improve society, reminds us that we need to evaluate the methods of any change agent and consider the cost in human suffering that may be required to bring about one’s social goals.

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