Death and the Maiden
Polanski, Roman, Kingsley, Ben, Wilson, Stuart, Weaver, Sigourney
- Nixon, Lois LaCivita
- Date of entry: Dec-31-1997
- Last revised: Aug-16-2006
The film is an adaptation of an award-winning play by Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean writer forced into exile in 1973. Through revelatory events affecting the three characters, audiences learn about atrocities committed by the Fascist government that had, until recently, ruled the unnamed country where the story is set.
Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) had been a political prisoner during the oppressive period who was tortured by her captors. After gaining her trust by treating her kindly and playing a tape of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, Dr. Miranda, a physician (Ben Kingsley) cruelly participated in the abusive treatment of his powerless victim. Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson), then her boyfriend, now her husband, had been editor of the underground newspaper and target of the absolutist regime. In spite of torture, she did not disclose his whereabouts and, in effect, saved his life.
Currently, Paulina lives with Gerardo in a desolate coastal setting. At the film’s onset, viewers note Paulina’s agitation concerning a news bulletin about the presidential appointment of a human rights commission charged with investigating abuses by the previous regime. According to the report, her lawyer husband has been appointed committee chair. The remainder of the film concerns victim, physician, and husband of that oppressive period who through strange circumstances are brought together during the night.
Reminiscent of a Lear-like heath, past terrors are howled out against a raging storm. On his way home Gerardo’s tire became flat and he was picked up and brought home by Miranda, a good Samaritan. When Paulina, who had been blindfolded during her captivity, recognizes his voice and pet phrases, she steals his car and pushes it over the cliff into the sea. Totally perplexed by the Paulina’s actions, the men pace about in the living room where the doctor delivers derisive diatribes about women in general and wives in particular. Gerardo, to a lesser extent, expresses condemnation and embarrassment for his wife’s inexplicable behavior.
When she returns, both men have had too much to drink; she finds a gun in their house, tapes the groggy physician to a chair, pistol whips him as he resists and shouts, stuffs her panties into his mouth, and begins a heated exchange with her incredulous and very angry husband. He wants evidence for her seemingly preposterous charge. She can "smell" him she screams; she found a tape of the Schubert String Quartet in D Minor in his car; and he quotes Nietzsche just as he did when she was strapped to a table. Under much strain, her husband agrees to a taped trial in which he will represent the accused and force a confession.
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In addition to issues of power, vulnerability, ethics, and trust, the story is about communication. The radio bulletin, for example, transforms Paulina by igniting the past and altering her behaviour. The men engage in a conversation about women that is offensive and inappropriate for a husband to tolerate; from a physician, whose language and references are more coarse, it is outrageous. As the mock trial begins, it is clear that Paulina and Gerardo have not discussed the details of her torture: he did not know details about the sexual assaults and the specific tortures performed by the physician. This night, therefore, is revelatory.
When the physician is dragged to the edge of a cliff, viewers see the role of the torturer reversed. About to be pushed to the rocks below, he confesses by describing the slip he made from the ethos of caring to a sadistic enjoyment of power over her vulnerability. Those who find the confession forced and the conclusion ambiguous are, nevertheless, drawn into the uncertainties of Dorfman’s provocative drama.
The film invites discussion of the death-and-the-maiden theme as presented in literature, medieval and contemporary art, and music. Parallel film stories include Four Days in September, Z, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Missing. Pleasantville, with its provocative points about oppression, can be added to the list as well.