It is a dark and stormy night. In an isolated house on a
deserted landscape, a woman waits alone. The opening moments of "Death and
the Maiden" are so intriguing that almost any continuation would be a
disappointment - but movies have to be about something, and so slowly the
purity of the situation settles down into the business of the plot. But not
before the woman, played by Sigourney Weaver, has made an indelible impression.
is angry and deeply troubled. She is expecting someone, and has a chicken in
the oven and a bottle of wine prepared. Then she hears a news bulletin on the
radio, and her mood turns to rage. She eats her own dinner, savagely jabbing it
with a knife, and dumps the rest in the garbage. She is acutely aware of the
night outside. When the man she is waiting for appears, he has been given a
lift by a stranger. She conceals herself in the bedroom, and pretends to be
asleep. The two men talk and drink. She creeps out into the night, steals the
stranger's car, and drives away.
visitor is distraught to have his car taken - to be marooned, in thanks for his
good deed. The two men sit on the steps and continue their conversation. One
man is her husband, Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson). The other is a neighbor
named Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley). The men become friendly, confiding.
It is very late, there is no way to leave the house, and so the visitor agrees
to bed down on the couch in the living room. He seems drunk, convivial, but the
moment the husband disappears a chemical change seems to take place, and he is
thoughtful and self-possessed.
goes to sleep. The woman approaches the house quietly, steals into the living
room, and is able to surprise the visitor and tie him up before he can resist.
She believes he is a torturer - the man who raped her 14 times when she was a
political prisoner. She never saw him, because she was blindfolded, but she
knows his voice, his way of using little phrases like "itty bitty,"
and even his smell. She knows it is him.
is the setup for Roman Polanski's film, based on the play by Ariel Dorfman. In
the movie's long night of the soul, the man, bound to a chair, will protest his
innocence. The woman will jeer at him and cross-examine him. And her husband
will waver first in one direction and then in the other, because this Dr.
Miranda is a charming man and a very intelligent one, and if there is a way for
him to talk his way to freedom, he will find it.
and the Maiden" is said to be based on events in Chile, but it could take
place in any of the many countries where rule is by force and intimidation. It
is, to some degree, about actual guilt: Is this the man who raped and tortured
her? To another degree, it is about the nature of guilt and human identity: If
this is the same man, has he perhaps changed? Was he a product of the times -
even a victim of the times, which forced some to be torturers no less than
requiring others to be victims? If he is guilty, does he repent? Is there
forgiveness for his crime? Does the woman, by making him a captive and taunting
him, descend to his level? Is her husband in some way caught up in a male
bonding with this man against women - an instinctive camaraderie that requires
him to join forces with any man against any woman? All of these questions lurk
tantalizingly under the surface of "Death and the Maiden," making it
richer than its materials might promise. The story is not about whether this is
the same man who tortured her, but about the question: What then? There is even
the subtle suggestion that - if he was the man - he was not as cruel to her as
he might have been, might even have shown her some twisted kindness, during
those dark days when an evil society forced captors and their prisoners to
enact the rites of torture.
and it is even more complex than that. Because the whole story leads up to a
long monologue by the doctor, brilliantly delivered by Ben Kingsley, so that we
must answer not only the question of his guilt or innocence, but the question
of its meaning.
the time the film arrives at its answers, they have become questions. The most
difficult question is, how must we punish the evil? If a man kills, must he
then be killed? The most compelling argument against capital punishment, for
me, is not that society should not execute, but that society should not make
anyone into an executioner.
and the Maiden" is all about acting. In other hands, even given the same
director, this might have been a dreary slog.
makes it come alive with his insinuating performance as the accused rapist: He
makes his character so smart we have a certain admiration for his struggle. He
is powerless, except for his wits, but they are formidable. The logic of the
story places him at its center, but without the Sigourney Weaver performance it
would still probably not work. There must have been the temptation to play up
the rage of her character, but she brings so many other colors to this woman.
There are times, during the dialogue, when we feel we have almost been
transported back through time to the actual events she remembers.
of the third character, the husband? Played convincingly by Wilson as a man who
would genuinely like to know the truth, he is a surrogate for us: A jurist who
will chair a panel to get to the bottom of those tragic years. But his wife
knows (and the man strapped to the chair knows) that no panel can answer, or
understand, the nature of the situation. Only the torturer and the tortured
have shared that information, and perhaps only by changing places can they
understand it. Always assuming, of course, that she has strapped the right man
to the chair.