Death and the Maiden (1994) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This Roman Polanski film begins with a woman (Sigourney Weaver) alone in a seaside home in a unnamed Latin American country which has just rid itself of a fascist regime. She is stranded in the dark without power or phones, both of which have been knocked out by the storm which rages outside. Her home is not within sight of any other homes. The only road in sight is not a road at all, but simply a mud path which interrupts the tall grass. The only sign of civilization is a lighthouse in the distance. Inside the house, she is setting out a dinner for two people. She is calm at first, but becomes increasingly tense because the second person has not arrived. She goes to her porch, stares down the road, searching. She listens to a report on her battery-operated radio, and this angers her. A car approaches. It is not the person she was expecting. She grabs a gun, hides her body from sight, tense, frightened, vulnerable. 

It turns out that there is no immediate threat. The car in front of her house is not the one she feared. Her husband is in the passenger seat. He had a flat and was offered a lift by a passer-by.

Great beginning! Very atmospheric, sets the stage perfectly.

As a bit of time transpires, the passer-by and her husband enter the house and talk. She becomes increasingly agitated as she listens to them. She goes into the bedroom, packs some clothes and a big wad of money. We see her changing, and when we see her skin, it is obvious that she has been tortured. She sneaks out of the house, steals the stranger's car, and drives off. She takes the car to a cliff, and pushes it over, destroying it on the rocks and sinking it in the tempest-tossed sea below.

The plot thickens, as they say.

What the hell is going on? Why was she so frightened before the men arrived? Why did the presence of the stranger agitate her?

It seems that she was tortured and raped 15 years earlier, and that her torturer may or may not have been the very stranger now in her house. (The stranger is played by Ben Kingsley. Gandhi as a torturer?) The movie's title, besides reflecting her youth and peril when she was tortured, is directly derived from the fact that the rapes were accompanied by music - Schubert's "Death and the Maiden." The purpose of that torture was to get her to reveal the name of the leader of the underground. She never cracked. The plot is thickened significantly by the facts that the underground leader she never exposed was the young man who is now her husband, and that the husband now seems to have bonded a bit with the erstwhile torturer.

She is certain that the stranger was her torturer - by the voice, the smell, the idioms of his speech - so she returns to her house and confronts him, but he steadfastly denies it, and has an ironclad alibi. He was in Barcelona at the time, doing his residency after medical school. She doesn't accept his denials, and she wants revenge, or "justice". Her husband realizes that she may well be mentally ill and delusional from the long-term effects of her confinement and torture.

Power shifts between the three people. Our opinions change. The truth eventually surfaces. But what is the truth?

Death and the Maiden is a screen adaptation of a taut three-person stage play. I have described the plot as if it were a Hitchcock film, and it is a good political thriller in its own way, but be advised that it is not paced like a popcorn thriller. There is very little action. The forward momentum of the plot is very slow. If you are not in the mood to watch three people sit in a room and discuss political torture for two hours, then you need to wander over to the next aisle of the video outlet because this is not an entertainment film. The thriller and mystery elements are merely an overlay for a serious drama laced with social activism, similar to the works created by the great playwrights of the 20s and 30s.  On those terms, it is an excellent movie. Roman Polanski directed a tight script expertly, and the cast played it out quite well.

DVD info from Amazon

  • good widescreen anamorphic transfer (1.85), but no meaningful features


Sigourney Weaver shows her breasts from several angles.

The Critics Vote ...

  • General USA consensus: three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 2/4. James Berardinelli was not typical, He was one of the very few who didn't like it. 18 of the 20 reviews at Rotten Tomatoes are positive. His is one of the other two.

The People Vote ...

  • The box office was minimal. The quality is not an issue here. It's a three character social activist drama - not exactly a summer blockbuster format. It did two million in the USA.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. It's aimed at mass audiences, but it's an excellent niche film, with just enough mystery to make the politics cinematic.

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