In a Latin American country riddled with corruption, honest policeman Augustin Rejas treads warily between ideals and duty while leading the manhunt for a terrorist movement's leader. Amid mounting violence, he finds a haven of calm with soulful ballet teacher Yolanda.
We know John Malkovich is an actor's actor, and we're learning he's also a producer of intelligence and taste; but it's still impressive that his directorial debut should be quite so startlingly good.
Nicholas Shakespeare's fascinating adaptation of his own novel is a fictionalised story set in an unnamed country, but its dramatic historical basis is the Peruvian government's hunt for the revolutionary guerrillas of Shining Path. This provides for credible action, atrocity and the topicality of hot political issues. At the same time, the story's heart is in exploring a personal philosophy challenged by a national crisis, as one man of good conscience is caught up in an overwhelming social event he wants to understand.
Rejas - a farmer's son who rejected the lawyer's easy temptations to serve instead in the police, where his career trajectory would be much smoother if not for his scruples - is a terrific study because he has affinities across class divides and long-standing sympathies with the underdogs.
Determined to deflect the extreme militaristic response of a corrupt government, he has to use all his smarts and self-control to avert the opposing menaces of ruthless anarchy and brutal martial law. His precarious position is emotionally underscored by his guilty conflict between faithfulness to his ambitious, shallow wife and his hungry attraction to an enigmatic dance teacher.
This is as literate - for some, arguably a bit lingeringly literary - as it is cinematic. Malkovich's confidently deliberate direction achieves an attractive, thoughtfully composed look and tone that conveys authenticity. He neatly sidesteps Hollywood casting for the subtle, impassioned and cynical characters with a terrific multi-national cast of native Spanish-speaking actors. The trump, of course, is Bardem, whose character's warmth, depth, pain and remarkable control are all in his face - a gift to Malkovich's long, steady gaze.
An electrifying political thriller, it's almost unbearably suspenseful at tracking the terrorist movement's escalating outrages, and the manhunt and romance dovetail in an extreme moral dilemma. Bouquets all round, but especially for magnifico Bardem.