The Dancer and the Thief -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain -- The screen adaptation of Antonio Skarmeta's novel "The Dancer and the Thief" is a well-worn project that has taken a long time getting onto the screen. Fernando Trueba's lilting adaptation of the romantic tragedy, set in post-dictatorship Chile, shows incontrovertible signs of age. The whimsical story follows two men, a seasoned safe-cracker and a feisty 20-year-old who has fallen afoul of the law, as they pursue the women they love while plotting a daring heist.

Despite Argentine star Ricardo Darin in the cast, local audiences are hard to predict for a film falling somewhere between art house and mainstream, while offshore this offbeat entry is unlikely to dance up a storm.

Nevertheless, Trueba's ("Belle Epoque") confident direction does leave strongly drawn characters and images in the memory. Young Spanish thesp Abel Ayala, discovered at age 14 in "El Polaquieto," infuses the film with an energy and dynamism it would otherwise lack. Those who like the charm of offbeat South American fare should find satisfaction here.

National amnesty has just been declared in Chile for non-violent crimes. As the infamous safe-cracker Vergara Grey (Darin) leaves prison, even the taxi driver recognizes his face. The warden personally comes to see Angel (Ayala) off. His tenderness is repulsed by the boy and a dark secret is hinted at, probably a forced sexual relationship.

While Vergara Grey tries to find his wife (Ariadne Gil) and son, who have made a new life for themselves, Angel roams the streets of Santiago penniless and light-hearted. He meets a strange mute girl, Victoria (Miranda Bodenhofer), standing in front of a porn theater.

She dances for him in the park and he falls instantly in love with her innocence. Even when he finds out her parents were murdered during the dictatorship, he doesn't realize how deeply scarred she is or what she is capable of doing.

Much screen time is spent while Angel tries to convince Vergara Grey to rob millions that were stolen by Pinochet when he was in power. Expectations are built up for the robbery to be a major climax in the film. When they finally get down to business, the job is given very low-key treatment and is shot very unsuspensefully.

Trueba flirts with offbeat ideas like having Angel ride a horse through the city streets with Victoria clinging on romantically behind him, or having Victoria perform after hours on stage at the national ballet school "for the country's greatest ballet critic" while Angel holds the school director at gun-point. These scenes may have an old-fashioned charm for viewers, but most will find them warmed-up leftovers from older, gentler days of filmmaking.

Perhaps all this is more interesting than watching Vergara Grey spar with his ex-wife and lose his dignity at his son's birthday party. Balancing Ayala's exuberance and lust for life, Darin is solid as the tired master thief who just wants to disappear into an anonymous straight life. Bodenhofer is an expressive young ballet dancer recruited for the film.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival
Production company: Fernando Trueba P.C.
Cast: Ricardo Darin, Abel Ayala, Miranda Bodenhofer, Ariadna Gil
Director: Fernando Trueba
Screenwriters: Fernando Trueba, Jonas Trueba, Antonio Skarmeta
Based on a novel by: Antonio Skarmeta
Producer: Jessica Huppert Berman
Executive producer: Cristina Huete
Director of photography: Julian Ledesma
Production designer: Veronica Astudillo
Costumes: Lala Huete
Editor: Carmen Frias
Sales Agent: 6 Sales, Madrid
No rating, 122 minutes