After the fall of a dictatorship a South American country struggles with it’s past. A government lawyer with car trouble accepts a lift home from a stranger. The lawyers’ wife is convinced the man is her torturer. She ties him up at gun point and demands a confession.
The writer, Ariel Dorfman, lived in Chile and was witness to the rise and fall of democracy there and the brutal tyranny that followed. He moved to England, became friends with Harold Pinter and was deeply influenced by him. He wrote the play that this film is based upon. It is the script that every filmmaker dreams of: three characters, one set, incredible writing – no wonder that Roman Polanski was drawn to it.
The story is set in South America on a lonely, coastal road. The sky churns black and gray and the sea pounds the cliffs. In a small, frame house set back from the road Paulina Escobar (Weaver) prepares a supper and listens to the radio. When her husband fails to arrive she eats by herself on the floor by candle light – away from the windows. Her husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson) finally shows up with another man, Dr. Miranda (Kingsley). Gerardo’s had a flat tire and Miranda has given him a lift. When Miranda drives off the couple have a fight. She is upset that he has accepted a government post without consulting her. She worries the criminals of the past will be forgiven -- she has a stake in the matter: she was jailed, tortured and raped by a members of the former regime.
Miranda returns with a tire and Gerardo has him in for a whisky. In another room Paulina overhears their conversation. She quietly packs a bag, leaves the house by a window and drives away in the doctors’ car. Miranda chases her on foot for a few yards. Gerardo assumes she’s left him -- it’s been a rocky relationship. The men tell a few jokes and get drunk and commiserate. Meanwhile Paulina has pushed the doctors’ car over a cliff and into the sea. She has a music cassette from the car – further proof, as if she needed it, that this is the very man who raped and tortured her fifteen years previously.
She returns to the house when the men are sleeping, pistol whips the doctor and ties him to a chair. Schubert’s ‘Death and The Maiden’ – the music the torturer played to accompany his sessions -- rings through the house. Gerardo is startled awake and walks into a nightmare.
Paulina will hear a confession or she will kill him, simple as that. The doctor claims he’s innocent. Gerardo is caught in the middle. He won’t be party to an execution: his wife’s evidence is weak: she wore a blindfold during the torture and bases her accusation strictly on the sound of his voice and his smell. What’s more the doctor has an alibi – he was working in Spain during the time in question and has a number they can call to verify -- except that the phone is down and the electricity is out. Gerardo convinces Miranda to make a confession to save his life. He believes his wife’s story, but he will not have blood on his hands.
And so they tape a crude confession: it seems staged and false and won’t fool anyone. Paulina rages – she will have the truth and nothing less. Suddenly the phone and the electricity are back. A phone call informs them the police will arrive by dawn. Guilty of torture and kidnap, Paulina drags Miranda by gun point to a cliff by the sea. Gerardo frantically calls the number in Spain – the doctor’s alibi is confirmed. Gerardo runs to tell Paulina but she won’t believe it. She knows he is guilty, (that they planted alibis before the regime fell) and now he will pay with a bullet. All three, it seems, are doomed – two to be murderers and one to die. As dawn breaks only the truth can save them. Suddenly it comes -- spewing forth like a cataract: the truth: blinding, dirty, shocking, soul-shattering. It’s a remarkable moment.
The acting is first-rate. (You quickly forget that these are English speaking whites pretending to be South Americans.) The small dwelling with the low ceiling: horizontal lines and angles, yellows and blue shadows, compresses action and emotion like a vice; a production design that is a gold standard for anyone with serious budget constraints. Polanski’ work on this small pallet makes you wish other great directors might be banished from time to time to the hinterland of cinema: into the genres and stories that deserve but all too rarely receive star treatment.
For there is a minor but significant niche that Hollywood ignores: grown-ups. ‘Death And The Maiden’ is a movie for grown-ups –- framing a gray, complicated world, where the villains have virtues and the heroes are tainted, and no one ever wins entirely -- a film that intrigues, haunts and enriches.