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
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
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.