Paulina Escobar (played by Sigourney Weaver) is one of the cruelest female characters I’ve seen in film and the crazy thing is she may very well be justified in all her psychotic, obsessive cruelty. Death and the Maiden is set in a nameless third world country where the political regime of the day has committed multiple atrocities against its people. Now things are seemingly changing and the committers of previous torture and crimes are begin whitewashed by the new regime for their support.
Paulina had been one of the few who had been tortured, repeatedly raped and experimented on by one particularly evil doctor. When her husband brings home a man he found having car trouble, Paulina hears his voice and is convinced that he was the doctor that tortured her. Then she goes nuts!
It’s a great film based on the stage play by Ariel Dorfman and directed by Roman Polanski. Weaver’s performance is remarkable and painful to watch. The character of Paulina walks a fine line for the viewer between victim and psychotic. She seems rational and yet unhinged at the same time. It’s difficult to justify her actions because they are extreme, yet if this man is indeed the doctor who tortured her…is this justice then? She forces her husband to be judge as she presents her evidence, yet he’s so mortified he doesn’t know what to do.
This narrative raises interesting questions, like how reliable are confessions gained under torture? It’s the tone of this film that comes through. Tone is the attitude towards the subject or the audience of a narrator or author. Dorfman’s attitude towards the evils of political power with popular support is clear. He’s critical of these atrocities, yet his real ire is aimed at people like the husband who is more concerned about how his little life may be affected by someone actually taking an action towards achieving justice. This film’s tone is towards the shock and horror of men when a female takes control in a violent way (violence being the realm of men). It’s not a critical tone, as it is more a shock for the male characters that a female would lie to them or challenge their authority or even, God forbid, seek justice outside their approval or, horrors, revenge. All that has traditionally been the providence of the male, and the tone of this narrative presents all of these ideas in support of what Paulina does…yet artistically manages to make her sympathetic as well. Well done.