Around the World in Ten Days

For film buffs, these are almost two weeks of sheer pleasure: the 16th annual Miami Film Festival, featuring 31 pictures from 15 countries. Naturally, Spanish-language features abound, from opening-night dance-fest Tango, courtesy of Argentine director Carlos Saura, to the kinky Spanish thriller Between Your Legs. There are also intimate looks at Cuban culture in both Hotel Riviera, a telling portrait of a Havana inn's evolution from a home for American mobsters to a den of Cuban spies, and Buena Vista Social Club, German director Wim Wenders' loving look at a group of old-school (and Grammy-winning) Cuban musicians.

The rest of the world has hardly been slighted, though. There are films from Iran (The Apple), Yugoslavia (Black Cat, White Cat by Emir Kusturica of Underground fame), China (The King of Masks), France (The Dreamlife of Angels, widely regarded as that country's film of the year), Italy (Besieged, the latest from legendary director Bernardo Bertolucci), and Sweden (The Last Contract). From America are the winner of this year's Sundance Film Festival's Audience Award, Three Seasons, and another Sundance fave, A Walk on the Moon. The festival opens Friday, February 19, and runs through Sunday, February 28, at the Gusman Center For the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami. Call 305-372-0925 for tickets.

Four full-length reviews follow. See "Film Capsules" for some short takes on other festival movies and the listings on page 38 for a schedule of screenings. New Times' coverage of the festival will continue in the next issue.

In an early scene in Tango, master Argentine dancer Juan Carlos Copes takes to the floor of a Buenos Aires nightclub with a woman decades younger than he. The club's crowd sits mesmerized as he presses his hand on his partner's back, precisely steering her through a complex combination of turns and dips. The camera closes in on Copes' grizzled face as he bores into her eyes with a burning stare.

With that one look, the veteran dancer distills the tango to its seductive essence. Unfortunately Spanish writer-director Carlos Saura is unable to do the same in his banal screen meditation on the South American art form. Produced in Argentina with the highest film budget in that nation's history, Tango (in Spanish with English subtitles) features a cast of top dancers and musicians that ranges from storied old-timers to young performers who bring a contemporary flair to the timeworn steps. Sensual photography by Vittorio Storaro (1973's Last Tango in Paris, 1979's Apocalypse Now) and innovative set design make for spectacular, Hollywood-style performance scenes, but the film is hobbled by a hackneyed romantic melodrama.

In the throes of a destructive midlife crisis, film director Mario Suarez (Miguel cngel Sola) writes an autobiographical screenplay while recuperating from a car accident he had while on a bender. His dancer wife, Laura (Cecilia Narova), has left him, taking her dance partner as her new lover. While scouting talent at a tango club, Suarez is smitten by Elena Flores (Mia Maestro), a young would-be dancer with a model's looks. She is the lover of club owner Angelo Larroca (Juan Luis Galiardo), a "Mafioso" who has a stake in Suarez's latest project. Larroca pressures the director to cast the inexperienced Elena. Predictably, and in this case infeasibly, the ingenue and the director become lovers, despite the threat of the jilted mobster's revenge.

Sola, a well-known screen actor in Argentina, has a natural style that is endearing, but here he has little to do but moon around and stare meaningfully -- at his ex-wife and her lover, at Elena, at the rehearsing dancers -- when not uttering trite truisms about artistic integrity and stage lighting "that reveals the soul." Although the 22-year-old Maestro is certainly beautiful, her acting is so self-conscious and wooden that her presence on screen pinches like a pair of new dancing shoes. On the other hand, Narova, an outstanding dancer who had a lead role in the Broadway show Tango Argentina, proves to be an engaging actress, and she oozes sex appeal. She's not the only one. Tango belongs to the dancers, both women and men; in the performance numbers and in rehearsal scenes, they reveal a passion for their art and for each other.

The cast includes American Ballet Theater soloist Julio Bocca as the tango company's choreographer. It's a treat to watch him dance the woman's part in one homosexually suggestive number. The venerable Copes, who is revered in the Argentine tango world, dashingly embodies the provocative image of the tango galan. The original score is by Lalo Schifrin (best known as the composer of the Mission: Impossible theme), and the soundtrack includes a slew of tango classics. Storaro's beautiful cinematography really illuminates the screen in a scene of a performance by the El Nuevo Quinteto Real, with the camera focusing on the musicians' gnarled hands as they play piano and bandoneon.

The outstanding dance and music sequences come as no surprise given the fact that Saura's sublime '80s trilogy of flamenco films (1981's Blood Wedding, 1983's Carmen, 1986's A Love Bewitched) are the definitive cinematic portrayals of that genre, as well as realistic studies of Spanish gypsy culture. The filmmaker touches on the social history of tango here, but he has difficulty finding something transcendental to say about a culture that is not his own. Dance numbers in Tango allude to Argentina's immigrant population and the country's violent history, but they merely scratch the surface. And though a haunting contemporary dance piece evoking the mass tortures and killings committed during the "dirty war" conducted by the nation's military regime in the '70s is riveting, the subject is given only scant attention in the dialogue. Saura might have considered delving deeper into the country that is synonymous with the tango. It is indeed curious that he chose to shoot the entire picture indoors on a sound stage just outside Buenos Aires. Filming in the streets of the city could really have brought the tango to life. As it is, by its conclusion (the film runs almost two hours), Tango seems claustrophobic.

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