A treasure trove of dancing, music and thoughtsBy Roy Rodenstein
1998, 1 hr 45 min
In Spanish, with English subtitles
Written and directed by Carlos Saura
With Miguel Ángel Sola, Cecilia Narova, Mia Maestro, Juan Carlos Copes
Tango is a simple name for a complex movie. The story of a tango dance performance director, this movie deals with youth and aging, with gender roles and power structures, with the consuming specter of Argentina’s military regimes, and, to a lesser extent, with love, all framed within the context of tango. In fact, even the issue of the movie’s simplistic name is touched upon.
The growing international popularity of tango has made its appearance in mainstream films commonplace, with even Arnold Schwarzenegger exhibiting tango in its most stereotyped form, in True Lies. At the other end of the spectrum, Sally Potter’s 1997 movie, The Tango Lesson, uses a thin plot involving Potter making a tango film to pack as much dancing as can fit into 100 minutes. Tango director Carlos Saura is himself no stranger to films about music and dance; most notably, Saura filmed Flamenco in 1995. In Tango, Saura strives for greater balance between dance and plot, and he comes close to achieving it.
Miguel Ángel Sola stars as Mario Suarez, who narrates at the opening and throughout the film. Mario is directing a tango performance sponsored by several money-bags, and one of these patrons wants his favorite girl to get a shot at joining the cast as a dancer. “Don’t let me pressure you,” he says to Mario, but no pressure is needed. Having recently lost Laura (Cecilia Narova) to a younger dancer, Mario quickly appreciates the youthful Elena (Mia Maestro), and he asks his choreographer to train her for one of the lead roles. Soon, Mario and Elena are together, to the displeasure of her ex, but the film has greater aims than the usual stories of passion and jealousy.
Music and dance are the heart of the film. Characters dance the tango and dream about dancing it, onstage, at a club, even as youngsters in school. Monotony is scarcely an issue, however. There are segments with only singing, segments of films from the ’30s, and there are segments of song and dance. At times, the tango is played along by masters such as Antonio Agri on violin and 82-year-old Horacio Salgan, astounding on piano, and at other times the music is joined by a dancer. The dancing, too, has an invigorating range. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro expertly uses lighting, spanning colors, and levels of brightness, to keep every dance sequence poignant, and crisp closeups of feet and faces are used to good effect.
Although the romantic subplot is basic, other aspects of the plot are profound. Mario and Elena discuss gender roles at dinner together. As the camera contrasts his tired manner with her pristine smile, the fresh dialogue allows Mario to stumble over and over until he conveys his point successfully, and raised issues about whether man’s traditional thirst for power is an example the younger generation should emulate are not simply time-fillers. In each other’s arms later, the two mull over their happy present and whether giving up the past is too big a loss if that past is haunted.
This difficult choice gives rise to a forceful sequence that invokes the tortures and disappearances enacted by Argentina’s military dictatorships in the recent past, which the movie manages without breaking its context. Other powerful scenes include ones of silent dancing as well as a part of the performance depicting the arrival of immigrants at the turn of the century.
Given the focus on music, acting roles are sparse. The aforementioned scenes between Sola and Maestro stand out. Juan Carlos Copes, as a middle-aged but fervent choreographer, is also strong, while the delightful Enrique Pinti, always listed in the “and Enrique Pinti as” category as of late, steals a few scenes. The dancing is also solid, of course, with Copes, Narova, and Maestro in major roles and with the requisite appearance by Julio Bocca. Original music by the prolific Lalo Schifrin suffers from being played too many times, as is often the case in dance movies, though certain compositions, such as a deep-pitched piano piece, could have had more playing time. Of course, there are also arrangements of classics such as La Cumparsita.
The movie’s English subtitles, incidentally, are worse than the average translation. For example, “hug” is repeatedly mistranslated as “kiss,” and the common metaphorical phrase “the old guard” is displayed as the name of a band.
In all, Tango is accomplished filmmaking. It falls short primarily in attempting to use a meta-plot (the movie is a performance about a performance) that does not really lead anywhere, though it works well enough as the movie’s framework. On other levels, from dancing to dialogue, Saura steers the film with mastery and poignancy. His finest accomplishment is in pacing, an essential element of tango. Like its dancers, the film lingers sensually on beautiful scenes, zestfully springs, catlike, and gyrates back and forth between these conflicting urges.