Roman Polanski’s underappreciated 1994 thriller Death and the Maiden confronts a litany of moral conundrums regarding guilt, revenge, punishment, justice, and man’s responsibility to himself and society. Yet for all its heavy-duty thematic baggage, the film (based on the play by Ariel Dorfman, who also co-wrote the screenplay), works best as an actor’s showcase for its three uniformly stellar leads, who bob and weave with the ferociousness of heavyweight pugilists. Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) is the well-to-do wife of a lawyer (Stuart Wilson’s Gerardo Escobar) who has recently been appointed to head up an investigation into human rights violations perpetrated by the former dictatorship of their anonymous Latin American country. Although the setting suggests post-Pinochet Chile, the story could just as well have taken place in any nation experiencing its first days free of despotic rule.
As teenage revolutionaries, Paulina was captured by a death squad and forced to endure months of electroshock torture and rape, but refused to rat out her then-boyfriend Gerardo. Although her physical scars have healed, the powder keg intensity of Weaver’s performance suggests that this slightly unhinged woman’s mental ones remain. Case in point: when a strange car approaches her home, Paulina’s immediate reaction is to kill the house lights, grab a loaded gun, and hide in waiting. The unknown automobile that navigates the winding road to her secluded waterfront home is the property of Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), who has graciously given Gerardo a ride home after finding him stranded with car trouble. When Paulina hears Miranda’s voice, she immediately recognizes him as the doctor who viciously abused her years earlier to the tune of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” and sets about putting him on unofficial trial for his crimes.
After driving his car off a cliff, Paulina binds and gags Miranda, demanding that he confess and repent or face death. Gerardo—unsure of whether his unstable wife has incorrectly identified this stranger, or if Miranda is merely a cool and confident liar determined to talk his way out of the situation—becomes the audience’s surrogate eyes and ears, the impartial jury charged with determining the truth. Yet the script’s allegiance is so heavily tipped in Paulina’s favor that the film is unable to keep us guessing about Miranda’s culpability, and Dorfman’s screenplay eventually shifts its focus to weightier issues: How can one determine the truth? Who has the right to take life? Does revenge provide inner peace, or does it only make the original victim the same as his/her violator?
This didacticism periodically threatens to sabotage the film’s mounting volatility, but the interplay between Weaver, Kingsley and Wilson has such a scorching ferocity and rawness that it’s easy to remain riveted even during the periodic detours into clumsy moralizing. Kingsley’s roundhouse climactic speech reveals evil as a beast not easily classified and explained, but it’s not until the epilogue that Polanski unleashes his film’s final, and most powerful, punch—a supple crane shot inside a concert hall that both evokes the inextricable web of deceit, violence, and shame that binds Death and the Maiden‘s three crippled characters, and stands as a superlative evocation of how man’s crimes against his fellow man are frequently hidden beneath a façade of everyday decorum.