Latin blood runs colder than expected in "Tango," an Argentinean dance drama that rejects Fosse-style feverishness to present a chilly view of the two-step between art and life.
To reveal the melancholia that underlies the steamy national dance, director Carlos Saura trains his camera on Mario Suárez (Miguel Ángel Solá), a Buenos Aires filmmaker in the throes of a midlife crisis. While lensing the ultimate tango epic, Suárez becomes enamored with Elena (Mia Maestro), a young dancer who's on the fast track to a starring role. The reasons for Elena's rise, however, go beyond talent: She's the mistress of Angelo Larroca (Juan Luis Galiardo), an underworld don with a financial stake in the project. At first, her placement in the company is a mere favor to a powerful patron, but wooing her becomes an obsession for Suárez -- a shield against his own mortality.
It isn't just middle age that's haunting Suárez. Consumed by memories of his country's bloody past, he's determined to make his film a political statement that translates the ravages of war into choreography. As his backers argue that the "offending" material must be dropped, you can hear Saura shuffling his own shoes to take his place alongside Fellini, Woody Allen and every other director who has ever found drama in the struggle of truth against commerce.
Conflict and emotion, however, are not the same thing, and "Tango" exists on a plane of resignation that's remarkably relaxed for its subject matter. Even the dance sequences exhibit a clinical composure. The members of the troupe are frequently reduced to silhouettes as they tango past movie screens displaying scenes from Argentina's cultural history. One such shot boasts an impossibly tight double-focus. It's beautiful and breathtakingly precise, like an accomplished ice sculpture.
"Tango's" narrative elements gradually and deliberately collapse into each other. No longer merely channeling his experiences into his work, Suárez is instead shown to be employing the elements of his daily life as the very building blocks of his art. Who's being used for what is uncertain, but it's all a game of the head, not the heart. With Saura's filmic thermostat rarely rising above room temperature, his theories of love and war -- whether personal or political -- fail to make us hot under the collar.