Dir John Malkovich. US 2001. 134 mins.

It's such a rarity nowadays to see an American film about explicitly political themes, and one set in a foreign country, that The Dancer Upstairs, John Malkovich's honourable feature directorial debut, deserves extra credit for its ambitious scope and for being made in the first place. Inspired by the political events and guerrilla wars in Peru, the story, based on Nicholas Shakespeare's well-received novel, centres on the efforts of one idealistic policeman, who faces the greatest challenge of his career in his determination to capture a mysterious guerrilla leader, the mastermind of a counter-revolution. The best marketing hook for this Fox Searchlight pick-up (out of the Sundance Film Festival's Premiere section) is the terrific lead performance by Javier Bardem, who has achieved international stardom since his Best Actor Oscar nomination in Before Night Falls. The fact that the film is in English presents some problems, but it should also help position it as an intriguing, most welcome player in the global arthouse and festival circuits.

With few notable exceptions, such as Tim Robbins (Dead Man Walking, Cradle Will Rock), most American actors who turn to directing choose small-scale, intimate, acting-driven vehicles for their feature debuts, as was the case with John Turturro (Mac), Sean Penn (The Indian Runner) and Steve Buscemi (Trees Lounge). Twice-Oscar nominated Malkovich, one of the most intelligent actors around, has deviated from this pattern by choosing to direct an absorbing film that's stronger in its delineation of a terrifying political ambience and other details than it is in depicting conflicts and characterisations.

Although clearly inspired by Peru's tumultuous politics in the mid-1980s, when the terrorist movement led by the Shining Path almost brought the government and country down, The Dancer Upstairs would like audiences to believe it could take place in any Central or Latin American country. The first reel is extremely compelling in depicting various acts of terror in an unidentifiable capital: dead dogs are hung on poles on the street with revolutionary slogans attributed to Ezequiel, whose identity is mysterious and presence unknown. His followers, mostly young boys and girls, engage in ritualistic acts of violence, planting bombs in public places, setting populated buildings on fire and shooting officers in cold blood.

The one character to guide the audience through this chaos - and also bring a sense of order to what initially appears to be a disorderly and diffuse narrative, which unfolds as a series of random acts of violence - is Augustin Rejas, an scrupulous lawyer, who must have quickly realised that he was in the wrong profession in terms of his personal sense of right and wrong. Despite disenchantment with how the legal system operates, Rejas has managed to maintain his idealism. Committed to a noble cause, he embarks on a mission that involves capturing the terrorists and their elusive leader, who hides somewhere in the capital.

It soon becomes clear that despite being married and a father to a lovely girl, Rejas is the type of man who would sacrifice anything to fulfil his duty. Indeed, as soon as Rejas is assigned to investigate the violent occurrences, he immerses himself completely, neglecting all those around him, including his peers and superiors, since his job also requires fighting duplicity and corruption within the police force itself. As expected, due to his dangerous knowledge, Rejas is removed from the interrogation, but in the manner of Serpico, Dirty Harry, and other police features, he continues his work on his own, risking his and his family's life. A strong, conscientious, inner-directed man, Rejas is very much in the tradition of heroes in American Westerns and crime thrillers, which should help US audiences to connect emotionally with his character.

The film's second hour settles into a more organised - but also more conventional - narrative, when Rejas meets Yolanda (Laura Morante of Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room), the attractive ballet teacher of his daughter. It's in these segments that the text emulates Costa-Gavras's thrillers, in which the political story is interrelated with a personal romance.

It takes some time for the audiences to get used to the diverse, multi-lingual cast, speaking English in various accents. No doubt, The Dancer Upstairs would have been more authentic had they spoken Spanish, but that would have limited substantially the size of its potential audience, which is small for political fare to begin with.

As a political melodrama The Dancer Upstairs faces another problem: astute viewers will be able to detect 40 minutes into the yarn the persona's true identities and specifically the character that serves as front for the guerrilla leader. Unfortunately, Malkovich and his editor intercut intimate romantic interludes between Rejas and Yolanda with disturbing scenes in which a theatrical performance goes terribly awry when audience members are brought to the stage and tortured, and with outdoor terrorist acts that may signal too many clues for the film to work as a genuine thriller. This aspect can be corrected in the editing room with more subtle cutting, and it's also recommended that the film lose at least 15 minutes of its excessive running time (134 minutes).

Although always provocative thematically, The Dancer Upstairs feels like a first effort, both narratively and technically. As often is the case, it may not have been a good idea to ask Shakespeare to adapt his book to the big-screen, for his script is both scattered and contrived. A more experienced scribe would have produced a more shapely, logical, and engaging story.

At this phase of his career, it may be unfair to compare Malkovich and The Dancer Upstairs with the political works of Costa-Gavras, whose films usually centre on a violent historical incident (kidnapping, assassination, trial). But in intent, that's what The Dancer Upstairs strives for: to tell a morality play set in a politically restless and dangerous milieu. In Z, Costa-Gavras had such fierce conviction about the urgency of its message that he tore right through it, combining technical maturity (which Malkovich lacks) with deep political consciousness. Costa-Gavras heated up his material explosively, with an energy that was impossible to resist, resulting in films that were a cross between quasi-documentary investigative journalism and visceral, immediate melodrama.

Malkovich maintains a simple point of view (that of Rejas) appropriate and necessary to political melodramas, but his film lacks the narrative momentum and forward drive of Costa-Gavras's thrillers, whose films are as much about politics (abuse of power, injustice) as they are rebelliously political acts themselves.

However, as far as execution is concerned, The Dancer Upstairs is superior to John Sayles' Spanish-speaking Men With Guns, also set in an unnamed Latin American country, which was both an artistic and commercial failure.

Since The Dancer Upstairs was in production long before September 11, one cannot attribute its story's relevance to the impact of that momentous event. However, the terrorist attacks will no doubt affect the specific ways in which audiences, both American and non-American, perceive this political film. Malkovich and his writer's suggestion that in some regimes, the difference between the legitimacy and morality of the rul