An accomplished and ambitious directorial debut from John Malkovich, "The Dancer Upstairs" is adapted by the British writer Nicholas Shakespeare from his own novel, which itself was inspired by the real-life manhunt for the Peruvian Shining Path guerrilla commander Abimael Guzman.
The film's setting is an unnamed South American country in the recent past, where a mysterious terrorist organisation is wreaking havoc with a series of bombings (often carried out by children) and assassinations of government representatives.
Dead dogs are being strung up from lampposts, the animals daubed with references to Ezekiel, the messianic leader of the rebels.
An ex-lawyer turned policeman, Rejas (Bardem) is ordered by his superiors to head up a small team to track down the elusive Ezekiel.
The inspector's investigation leads him back to the countryside where he grew up and from where Ezekiel derives support from the impoverished population. But, back in the city, the married Rejas has fallen for his daughter's ballet teacher Yolanda (Morante), a woman with secret political affiliations...
"The Dancer Upstairs" operates on various levels - as an investigative thriller, as a thwarted love story, and as portrait of the way a fundamentally corrupt society breeds support for terrorist movements.
Bardem is outstanding as the straight-arrow Rejas, taunted by his boss for being the Gary Cooper type: the actor produces a solemn, dignified performance. He is well supported by the expressive Morante.
Yet Malkovich shows that there's more to his talents than directing his actors.
He intrigues us with an opening scene at a remote rural checkpoint where a car radio plays Nina Simone's Who Knows Where the Time Goes.
He carefully constructs a threatening atmosphere and, throughout the unhurried pacing, allows us to get a real sense of Rejas' cramped, unfulfilling home life.
Impressively shot by José Luis Alcaine, it's partly indebted to the political dramas of Costa-Gavras, whose "State of Siege" is watched by Rejas, although "The Dancer Upstairs" is less strident and melodramatic in its tone.