November 1901. Mexico City. A police raid on a high-society private party leads to the arrest of 42 men. Nineteen are found wearing lavish ball gowns that matched the opulence of the (very much illicit) affair. Among those arrested are key figures from Mexico’s ruling class, including one whose name and presence at the party is promptly erased from the record. David Pablos’ handsome period film “Dance of the 41” traces the real-life story of that man: Ignacio de la Torre (Alfonso Herrera, “Sense8”), the then-son-in-law of Mexican president Porfirio Díaz.
Monika Revilla’s screenplay doesn’t begin with the political scandal that gives the film its title. Instead, it uses it as its climax, an impactful punctuation mark on a tender love story played against the backdrop of the patriarchal power structures of Mexico’s turn-of-the-century gentry. As Ignacio, who’s recently been wed to Amada Díaz (Mabel Cadena, “Monarca”) and in turn appointed to Congress, plots an ambitious political career ahead, he’s taken one night by Evaristo Rivas (Emiliano Zurita). The good-looking young lawyer’s body language and knowing glances pique Ignacio’s interests right away. As they volley euphemisms back and forth, their blush-worthy smiles indicate a kind of connection that can only bloom in darkness.
And bloom it does. Ignacio and Evaristo (“Eva,” as he calls him) become inseparable, puppy-eyed lovers who sneak away every chance they get. Their relationship gets even more serious once Ignacio invites Eva into a secret society of fellow “Socratic lovers.” His initiation, which turns into an orgiastic bacchanal, is the first instance where it’s clear what’s happening between them isn’t merely a lust-driven affair. Where DP Carolina Costa surveys said orgy with tasteful curiosity, letting flickering candle-lit flesh serve as a throbbing backdrop, she stays close on Herrera and Zurita’s faces, letting their intimacy stand apart from the overflow of sexual desire that surrounds them.
Their courtship and relationship, which soon becomes the talk of the town, stands in stark contrast to Ignacio and Amada’s loveless, listless marriage. In another narrative, the dutiful, wronged wife might have been a rote role, one left at the margins to better be ignored by story, characters and audiences alike, her pain necessary collateral damage for the sun-dappled gay affair at its center. Not so here. Revilla and Pablos are deeply interested in Amada’s bouts of paranoia and anxiety over her husband’s lack of interest in her body as well as in the isolation she’s made to feel because of her indigenous ancestry (her mom was refused an invitation to her wedding) and the cold shoulder she garners from her peers (“You and my father are all I have,” she pleads with Ignacio). Cadena is bewitching throughout, making the most out of scenes that risk turning Amada into a petty, pathetic little girl but instead paint a portrait of a woman robbed of her agency by a callous man who married her out of convenience.
As the gossip around Ignacio grows and he begins to feel pressure to leave Eva behind, “Dance of the 41” illuminates, however disjointly, the way men like Ignacio and women like Amada are subject to the whims of a society that has yet to make room for who they are outside of the confined roles they’ve been required to play. Theirs is a twinned and intertwined tragedy. He may find refuge among those like him in an exclusive club that basks in its privilege and insularity where men play pool and smoke cigars, host campy theatrical productions with penis-shaped props and stage high drag opera performances all the while wearing dresses or pearls or wigs if they so desire, but she has no such escape. Then again, once the film careens toward its titular event, Ignacio soon comes face-to-face with a truth he’d been hoping to outrun in between stolen nights with Eva: Such an escape was always going to be untenable.
Juggling a marital melodrama, a queer romance and a political drama within a chronicle of a pivotal historical scandal, “Dance of the 41” was always going to be an ambitious proposition. One whose lofty aspirations are suggested in some of its most affecting scenes. Its final beat, like the entirety of its fabulous, tragic final act, is as masterful as it is heartbreaking. As a whole, though, it remains too stilted, like a painstakingly staged tableau vivant of late-19th-century Mexico and the patriarchal power structures that undergirded it.