Sunday, October 10, 2021

Reading the Character of Others by Their Faces: A Scene from The Dancer Upstairs

A police detective in a South American country is dedicated to hunting down a revolutionary guerilla leader.  Tagline, The Dancer Upstairs

As I've written elsewhere, The Dancer Upstairs is an exceptional movie (and one of my favorites), despite the somewhat lukewarm response from critical viewers at There are so many satisfying subtleties to savor that a  less patient viewer might miss. By "less patient" I mean that kind of viewer looking for thrill-ride action and spectacle. This film is more like a layered poem that keeps treating you to new insights over time as you reflect on its passages.

In the film Javier Bardem plays the central character Augustin Rejas. a disillusioned former lawyer who is now a police detective because he wanted to do something more honest. As it turns out, this decision will only bring him further disillusionments. 

The scene I wanted to share here takes place in a cafe. At this point in the film, after years of activity in the surrounding rural areas the revolutionary guerrilla leader Ezequiel has become active in the Capital. Augustin is seated with Yolanda (Laura Morante), his daughter's dance instructor with whom he has slowly become enamored. 

Large photographs of faces hang on the walls of the cafe. Each table has a brochure listing their identities, quiz-style. That is, it's like a game for couples or groups to play. One person picks a face and the other must guess what kind of person it is. Hero, vagabond, prince, thief, etc.

Yolanda: They're from newspapers. So picture number two, who do you think it is?

Augustin: Well, he's obviously a thief.

Yolanda: Mm-mm. No. Murder victim. Now... Picture number nine.

Augustin: Policewoman?

Yolanda: Policewoman it is. Now it's your turn.

Augustin: Picture number seven?

Yolanda: I would say, a judge.

Augustin: No. Murderer. (a beat) Number ten?

Yolanda: A thief.

Augustin: Right. Well, that means half the people  we meet, we get wrong.


It's a brief scene, seemingly unrelated to the story, yet precisely designed to foreshadow what's to come. As Chekhov famously noted, you don't put a gun in the story if you're not going to use it. The scene, therefore, is clearly intentional.

The big surprise comes at the climax when everything is revealed. Neither Augustin nor Yolanda had grasped who the other was or the motivations that impelled them. In other words, in the game of faces, each incorrectly assumed the character of the other.

* * *

How are you at reading character? How often would you say that "what you see is what you get"? Frequently our interactions with others are relatively innocuous. I've been fooled before. Things aren't always as they seem. 

Perhaps we get fooled because we trust too much. We find it hard to believe that this person or that would lie so audaciously. Often we only hear what we want to hear. As the saying goes, we "like to put the best face on things." 

There's a better way to measure character. It's not what people say but what they do and how they act that reveals who they are. 

This applies equally to ourselves. It's important every once in a while to take stock. As we lean over the mirror of our acts, our souls recognize what we are.

Related Links

Javier Bardem Delivers the Goods in The Dancer Upstairs

The Mirror of Our Acts 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Alas we are all the same, half good and half bad ... And a picture can't tell...The ugliest person can be able to act like a saint and the best looking one can be able to turn into a criminal...It all depends on circumstances.
Your article makes me feel like watching this movie! Thanks ED!

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