Reviewed by: Chris

How would you like to die? My guess is, not in a hospital bed. And the image of an elderly gent having a heart attack while romping with a 16-year-old is far too tawdry. How about tango?

Two lovers locked in embrace. Or simply dancing through what Edvard Munch described in his Dance of Life painting. The three stages of womanhood. Virginity and girlhood, love and mature womanhood, then death and widowhood.

Clea Wallis has come up with a warm, engaging and very polished short. Bohemios has conceptual depth and effortless, exquisite execution. In the release notes it is described like this: “Musa Galante, an old Tango maestro from Buenos Aires tells of his obsession with death and his bizarre experiments with dying. The film follows him around the Tango bars of La Boca as he dances with his partner Virginia. Inspired by the dance marathons of the 1920s, the film deals with exhaustion, youth and age.”

Surprisingly, what could have been the most morbid short in the 2009 Edinburgh Dance Film Festival turns out to be of the most engaging and sophisticated. I had to suppress my mirth for the full 15 minutes.

The film is in grainy black and white and its appearance replicates early cinema, immediately evoking the period. We can make out two figures, a couple, on what could be a bench outside their home. They are performing a ‘dance’ in which each keeps falling down (as if exhausted) as the other lifts them up again.

An unstoppable monologue soon cuts into our thoughts. An elderly tanguero is expositing at great length. His life in the dance bars of Buenos Aires, the people, and his interest in death. He is quite unselfconscious and, although entirely in Spanish, a delight to listen to (helpful subtitles do come up for most of what he says).

The camera cuts to card tables and bars, old people dancing tango very informally, and conversations frozen in time with staggered freeze-frames. He is telling, matter-of-factly, his interest in funeral parlours and how fascinating he finds them. On one occasion, he opens a medium-sized coffin and asks if he can lie in it for a while. Just to see what it is like. After about 15 minutes, he says, it was, “like being in another world.”

A dissolve, and our dancers are in a woodland scene. A man is carrying his partner – they are maybe the falling-down couple from earlier in the film. I get the feeling that he is going to the wood to bury her. But he carries her in such a way as if they are still dancing. Perhaps they will still be dancing in heaven when they are dead and buried.

Immortalised tango dancers are not unheard of. They are almost a tradition in Argentina. Carlos Gardel, killed in a plane crash in 1935, has a bronze statue, known as ‘the bronze that smiles’ next to his tomb. Between the fingers, a cigarette is kept alight – rather like a lighted candle burning in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, or often at Chopin’s grave in France’s Père Lachaise. In some homes, Gardel’s picture is displayed next to pictures of saints. For many Argentines, he will never die. “Gardel sings better every day,” they will say.

This may not be quite the death and resurrection of Christian believers, but it is a beautifully poetic image. One that can inspire the living as well as those left behind.

In 1991 the Buenos Aires Herald wrote: “Men and women facing critical moments in life, especially death, ever present in tango, release tensions through their fears and anxieties, and overcome despair by means of some nearly religious rituals: the (tango) milonga could be one of them.”

‘Dance marathons of the Twenties probably refers to the American craze (more the Thirties, I thought) of competitions where contestants literally danced till they dropped. In one marathon, they danced for over 22 weeks, with fifteen minutes or less rest per hour. A limited version of the craze reached Scotland. Though the tango being danced here by this time had a rival in the Carioca, as created in Fred and Ginger’s film, Flying Down To Rio. But in Bohemios, Clea Wallis has taken the tango migration all the way back to its roots in Argentina. La Boca is a colourful waterfront barrio of Buenos Aires, a mostly poor district, where you can still see impromptu sidewalk tango displays. It is here where tango first established itself. Bohemios is a tango club. It is a communion of tangueros. In 1920. And now, in the world of their grandchildren. It reminds me of the song,

“Underworld song, song of Buenos Aires, There’s something inside you that lives and is everlasting, Underworld song, lament of bitterness, Smile of hope, sob of passion.”

Like the tango, this film is timeless song. I could enjoy it again and again.

Reviewed on: 24 May 2009
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Youth, age and exhaustion examined through tango.
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Director: Clea Wallis

Starring: Musa Galante and Virginia, Clea Wallis and Paul Rous

Year: 2000

Runtime: 15 minutes

Country: UK, Argentina


Dancefilm 2009

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