We will die from so much past.
I will let the past become the past.
Paulina Escobar, quoting Gerardo Escobar
Politics and art have, wonderful to say, very little in common, which is why an artistic mind will typically shun the affairs of state and its denizens as the hapless pursuit of the mediocre, the greedy, and the petty. This is hardly an exaggerated assessment. Yet those of us fortunate enough to live in a nation where we can place and replace our leaders may take for granted suffrage, privacy, and the slew of other freedoms which has predicated many a revolution. We may bemoan small inconveniences and frivolous mistakes; we may demand more of our government than we need to demand, just because our government has kept us peaceful and prosperous long enough to raise our expectations; and we may forget about some other places, less fair and less free, where the government is built not to serve the people but to breed and devour them like cattle. Much like, we are told, the recently deposed government in this film.
That other place will be "a country in South America ... after the fall of the dictatorship," the film's sole caption, flashed a few minutes into our story – but we should say something about those first few moments. We are in a luxurious concert hall that could be in Europe or the Americas, with our eyes on an attractive, cygnet-necked woman around the age of forty. Her eyes, however, are directed in horror at the stage, where a quartet plays this famous piece. A man in the next seat, probably her companion for the evening or much, much longer, stares achingly at a person who, he believes, may reveal herself at any moment. We do not know what memories stir within her, what images are summoned by these frenzied notes, but they cannot be those of happiness or glory. After that brief glimpse at our heroine, we are left to contemplate the quartet in tempestuous concentration until the aforementioned caption drastically changes our scenery. We enter an isolated house and behold an isolated woman, the first of our cattle and the woman from the theater. Her name is now legally Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver), but once upon a time, fifteen years ago, to be exact, she was Paulina Lorca. Fifteen years ago – to wit, in the early months of 1977 – Paulina Lorca was a student activist who had the very bad luck of loving her current husband, at the time a pseudonymous newspaper editor, Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson), so much as to have literally gone through hell to protect him. They have lasted twenty years; they have no children; and when Gerardo shows up in the pouring rain, the passenger in a car not his own, they seem to have almost nothing to do with one another. Gerardo arrives, soaked, out-of-shape, and apologetic to find a chicken dinner already sampled by his wife during that long wait ("unceremonious" was a word coined for how she serves herself). A wait during which she just so happens to hear that the President has just appointed Gerardo Escobar head of the new human rights commission to investigate the evils of the not-so-ancien régime. And in the middle of this thunderstorm, her husband, the victim of both the elements and his wife's forgetfulness, pulls up in a car driven by an ostensible good Samaritan, a small, wiry, and unpleasantly energetic man called Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley).
His wife's forgetfulness? Given the cyclone of subsequent events, critics have tended to overlook the fact that when Gerardo incurs a flat tire, he has a spare in his trunk. The only problem is that the spare itself is flat, having never been replaced by Paulina after her own breakdown a while back. This will prove to be an important detail, because if Death and the Maiden has one motif, it is willpower and choice. Yes, the heavens flooded the earth and obliged Gerardo to "leap in front of" Miranda's car; yet it was Paulina's lack of foresight that enabled chance to take its course. As he deposits his grateful passenger at his isolated home, Miranda's ears prick up at the name Escobar ("Escobar, the lawyer?"), and he scrutinizes the house with no small interest. Is this a dramatic glitch? Could he possibly know that Paulina is inside? The matter is never quite clarified, and, in any case, we will get more than one version of the truth. And the truth is a poorly guarded secret: in the same fateful year of 1977, Paulina Lorca had been distributing copies of an anti-government newspaper when she was abducted by the forces she had long sought to oust. Two months later, after a sixteen-hour-a-day living hell in which she was subjected to evils that no human being should ever conceive of, much less physically endure, she was released because it was determined that she did not know the editor's true identity. She came home to her Gerardo, the boyfriend and editor whose life she had just spared, and found him in bed with another woman. "How many times did you sleep with her?" she will ask him late in our film. He cannot count how many, but they had been lovers for about a month at that point. A month, her whole body asks. Yes, because it took about a month for him to believe, with all the plausibility of experience, that Paulina Lorca was no longer among the living. This revelation to her is payback for what she reveals to him: that not only was she tortured for two months, but she was also raped repeatedly, and the perpetrator was none other than Dr. Roberto Miranda.
These paragraphs rhyme in Miranda because Paulina's world has always rhymed in the same smell, the same voice, the same manner of speech, all aspects of a past that has become an unbreakable fortress of ice frozen around the present. As she was blindfolded in captivity, she never saw her purported captor, whose name comes from mirar, to look or watch (in delightful irony, the name Escobar evokes escoba, a broom to sweep all the dirt under some rug). Could she be mistaken? Some may say it would be impossible to be wrong unless one were deluded; but people do modulate their behavior, habits, and voice, especially when they have something to hide. But there is one more proof: every time her invisible assailant entered her, he played Schubert's stormy piece for ambience. While sadists have been known to aspire to culture or what they perceive as culture, this sidelight, which informs the entire play and christens it, has another implication: that the educated, the sophisticated, and the cultured were as involved in the evils of this unnamed country as the quick-twitch thugs who existed solely to destroy the disobedient. Miranda revisits the Escobars' residence that fateful night, allegedly to return a tire but also to wax more than a bit toady to the new head of the human rights commission. "I've followed your career ever since you petitioned on behalf of the missing prisoners in –" but Miranda does not attempt to finish this compliment and Gerardo waves it off modestly. Miranda is insecure, or so it seems, and a bit too bent on coming off as an intellectual: he is a little too sardonic, too interested in quoting famous thinkers, too smug about life's vicissitudes. And as he is invited in for a drink to celebrate his kindness, his voice is recognized by a hidden Paulina in a very effective sequence of gestures and actions. Within a couple of hours, Paulina will have hijacked and demolished Miranda's car (not before, however, she finds a damning object), effectively stranding him in that isolated house, and Miranda and Gerardo will have drowned themselves in booze and low-key misogyny. Believing Paulina to have left him for good, Gerardo retires for the night only to wake up and find his bleeding, gagged guest bound to a chair under the gun-toting watch of his long-suffering wife. And this wife has a long-devised plan for Dr. Roberto Miranda.
Since we have only three characters, more or less one set, and a whole lot of talking, we may safely assume that the work was originally a play. Polanski elects to maintain the cadence and projection common to the stage; the dialogue seems overfraught with meaning; even asides come off as histrionic. What lies behind this artistic choice? Probably the implication of a façade: Paulina, Gerardo, and Miranda are all playing roles, roles they have taken up to protect themselves from memories, pain, or criminal prosecution. More natural dialogue might have reduced the whole production to a cheap thriller; as it were, we are constantly reminded we are watching great tragedy unfold. Weaver is a rather attractive woman, but possesses a tomboy quality, as well as a strong jaw, a man's height, and shorter hair that all lend her much-needed toughness. While it is perhaps not fair to say that a more delicate-seeming female would not have survived the same ordeals, we also do not know how she was before April 1977. That she seems scarred but determined makes her a very plausible victim (flagellation marks spider across her back), especially considering the events of the film's second half. While this is indeed Weaver's show, and her acting is splendid (Kingsley, with a far less challenging part, is likewise excellent), it is, interestingly enough, Wilson who has the toughest role and he is bizarrely flawless. The victim who can soliloquize on the evils committed upon her person (the camera gives her the entire frame for minutes on end as Weaver unfurls wickedness after wickedness) lends itself to melodrama, self-loathing, and bloodlust; the ostensibly malevolent doctor has been performed a thousand times, although Kingsley brings a particular emptiness to the role, a concentrated effort to have absolutely no personality and yet still be a 'normal' citizen. It is the portrayal, however, of a pasty, cowardly, weak, and indecisive lawyer who not once – not the entire film – shows an ounce of courage that is nearly an impossible feat, and Wilson acquits himself grandly. So when, very late in our film, he tells Paulina, "I love you. I love you. It has been the logic of my life. But I have a feeling it's going to destroy me," he is utterly and wonderfully convincing. Alas, the same cannot be said of Dr. Roberto Miranda.