Dead dogs hang from lampposts. A boy of around 10 walks into a politico's lair carrying a suicide bomb. The acts of terrorist anarchy that disrupt the languid surface of The Dancer Upstairs look like the work of a sociopathic underground fringe -- a version of the Baader-Meinhof group or the SLA. Or could it, just maybe, be a cult of freedom fighters jump-starting a revolution? In a world where terrorism rules politics, is there a difference?
Based on Nicholas Shakespeare's 1997 novel, the first feature film directed by John Malkovich is set in an unnamed Latin American country; what seems at first like a cataclysm sinister enough to be science fiction is, in fact, the film's version of the Shining Path movement that dominated Peru in the early '80s. Javier Bardem stars as the police captain who attempts to unmask the enigmatic cult leader (a gloss on Abimael Guzmán), maneuvering through a regime that threatens to teeter into military fascism. Anyone who loved Bardem's performance in ''Before Night Falls'' will want to see what a true chameleon of the spirit he is. Cast as a frustrated family man, he is placid yet implosive: a force of good who may not be forceful enough. The pivotal relationship in ''The Dancer Upstairs'' -- Bardem's attraction to his daughter's ballet teacher (Laura Morante) -- is, ironically, the least convincing thing about it. Yet the movie has a mystery, and moral unease, that lingers.