The hot splendors of Carlos Saura's Tango are supported by a scrap of plot, and that's all it needs. The soul-searching Spanish director of Peppermint Frappe and Taxi, who previously showed us his passion for dance with 1995's Flamenco, leaps into tangomania like a man falling hopelessly in love--with no regard for consequence. His obsession is the tango itself, his mission to reveal this sensuous, furious, living thing in all its many lights.
To that end, Saura confines his sizzling dance numbers to a huge soundstage in Don Torcuato, outside Buenos Aires, and his dramatic narrative to a minimum: the story of (what else?) a director named Mario (Miguel Angel Sola), troubled because his dancer-wife, Laura (Cecilia Narova), has just left him and because he cannot find a unifying thread for (what else?) a film about the tango. Despite the distractions of a midlife crisis and a dangerous affair with a local mobster's young girlfriend (Mia Maestro), Mario's flights of imagination at last link the dance sequences.
Never mind the Felliniesque self-consciousness. The tangos in Tango, choreographed by Juan Carlos Copes, Ana Maria Steckelman and Carlos Rivarola and ravishingly shot by three-time Academy Award winner Vittorio Storaro, are so varied and gorgeous that you're likely never to look on any bodily movement quite the same way again. There's a dream dance of revenge, complete with flashing dagger and bathed in devil's-red light. A white-haired tango master, graceful as an ancient god, takes a beautiful novice in his arms and transforms her art before our eyes. Dipping and floating behind a screen, two silhouettes seduce us with a tango of first love. Two women share the floor in ritualistic embrace, then two men.
Exploring the reaches of metaphor, Saura and the choreographers also conjure up a platoon of harshly uniformed men and half a dozen writhing women who reenact, in dance, the horrors of the once-dreaded Argentinian police state. Even kids get into the act. Recalling his boyhood, Saura's alter-ego director finds himself back in grammar school, where the tango captures the imagination of ten-year-olds, too.
The tango sequences employ nearly five dozen dancers, giving each scene its own tone and texture. Students of the art will be especially pleased to note the presence of the great ballet star Julio Bocca, returning here to his roots.
Tango is a feast for the ear as well as the eye. The soundtrack fairly vibrates with traditional tango melodies by Amadori, Salgan and Blanco, and Buenos Aires native Lalo Schifrin, the magisterial film composer and jazz pianist, contributes half a dozen new ones. In sum, the score deserves a roomful of Oscars. Many viewers, I suspect, will be slipping on their dancing shoes, then slipping down to the record store to pick up the most vivid movie CD of the year.
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"I want to see one body with four legs," the movie-within-a-movie's choreographer tells one of his young couples, and they rise to the challenge. If the greatest mystery of the tango is its ambiguity--the spectacle of seduction and anger fused by sheer heat--its most evident quality is eroticism. One body, four legs: The ideal of lovemaking, most people would agree.
Saura's tenuous meditations on life and art aside, Tango celebrates Argentina's most compelling export with verve and quickly puts previous efforts, notably Sally Potter's stiff, discomfiting The Tango Lesson, on the sidelines of the cinematic dance hall. From its intimate duets, cast in moonlight or lovelight, to its breathtaking final number, which depicts nothing less than the melodrama of immigration and assimilation, Tango reveals the sources and the complex emotions of a national passion through the boundless enthusiasm of an aficionado. With or without the current surge of tangomania that is sweeping our nation and others, this is a timeless treasure of a movie.
Written and directed by Carlos Saura. Starring Miguel Angel Sola, Mia Maestro and Cecilia Narova.