After the hesitant critical reception to 1997’s “Pajarico,” Carlos Saura returns to terrain he has made his own with the musical “Tango,” a part-fictional, part-documentary study of Argentina’s national dance in the line of his 1983 “Carmen.” Powerful, intelligent and stunningly lensed by Saura’s regular d.p., Vittorio Storaro, pic is more than the mere homage of “Sevillanas” and “Flamenco,” and, though purists may complain that there are a few philosophical conversations too many, sales prospects worldwide look solid.
Mario Suarez (Miguel Angel Sola) is a 40-something tango artist whose best years are behind him. His wife, Laura (Cecilia Narova), has left him, and he is using a stick to get around. Mario throws himself into his work, leaving his apartment and moving to the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where he is preparing a film about tango.
Much of pic is concerned with Mario’s attempts to get the production looking the way he wants it. During a visit to a cabaret, he meets suspect entrepreneur Angelo Larroca (Juan Luis Galiardo), who tells him that he is in love with Elena Flores (Mia Maestro), a headstrong wannabe dancer. Larroca asks Mario to give her an audition, and the latter slowly falls in love with Elena — at great personal risk, given Larroca’s dangerous reputation.
Onto this bare plotline Saura crafts a pic with the intelligence and grace of his earlier music trilogy, using tested aesthetic criteria. Most of pic was shot on a specially constructed set in Buenos Aires, with technicians and choreographers painstakingly working toward the final version in a parallel commentary on Mario’s own attempts to put back together the fragments of his emotional life. The set is a spacious, airy marvel of light, shadow and richly textured color, exploring a wider tonal range than in the earlier pics.
It is, of course, in the dance pieces that the film’s true power resides. They are carefully built into the thematic structure, and several are the result of Mario’s tortured visions. Julio Bocca (playing himself) and Juan Carlos Copes are among big tango names that Saura has brought in. An elegantly choreographed sequence between Laura and Elena dressed in period costume, a powerful representation of military brutality and a final section showing the arrival of the first immigrants in Buenos Aires are particularly striking. Faces, feet and legs are visually dissected, and the final impression is that the viewer has not only seen some extremely sexy dancing but also touched on tango’s spiritual and political significance for Argentina.
Central perf by Sola, who appears in every speaking scene, is nicely modulated, and Spanish tango dancer Maestro has a presence and grace that cameras die for. Original music by Lalo Schifrin blends seamlessly into a healthy smattering of tango classics that show the uninitiated that tango is not only about passion, but about danger and sorrow, too. Wisely — in terms of international interest — the script focuses more on dance than on lyrics, and tech credits are a pleasure in themselves.