The Tango Singer Review
10th Belfast Film Festival review
There have been quite a few films that have attempted to harness the power, the melodrama, the passion and the violence of the tango over the years, but while several filmmakers have indeed drawn a distinct charge from the innate qualities of the song and the dance, the nature of filmmaking almost demands that the performance of the tango become subservient to the necessities of the narrative. Diego Martínez Vignatti’s The Tango Singer (La Cantante de Tango) succeeds where many others have failed, the film finding the perfect balance between the minimal outward description of the violent inner passions stirred-up by the break-up of a relationship and the expression of those emotions through the performance of the tango song.
Up until now, when it has not been merely a backdrop for people in a mid-life crisis trying to rediscover some passion in their lives through dancing (Not Here To Be Loved), the tango in cinema is almost invariably used to explore the intensity of the struggle for power in a relationship between a man and a woman. More adventurous filmmakers, recognising that the closer a film gets to the performance itself, the more successful the expression of those underlying forces, have used a meta-narrative device of putting on a tango performance and going through the motions of the dance as a means to highlight political oppression – in the case of Carlos Saura’s Tango – or as a commentary on the collaborative nature of filmmaking itself as in the case of Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson. No matter how well tango is incorporated into the film however, it is ultimately in service of the narrative drive, and the fit is always imperfect.
It takes an Argentinean cinematographer then (director Diego Martínez Vignatti has worked as DoP for Carlos Reygadas, notably on Japón and Battle in Heaven) to find a visual means of expression that works much better than either performance or narrative. The Tango Singer succeeds not because it understands tango better than other films, not because the performance of the tango is purer than other films, or that it finds a more equitable balance between expression and performance, but because it actually becomes Tango.
That might suggest that the film is somewhat abstract and experimental, but in reality it is simplicity itself, reducing the storyline to the barest of outlines of a broken relationship without losing any of the underlying depth of feeling that it engenders. Helena (Eugenia Ramirez Miori) is a rising talent in the tango clubs of Buenos Aires, but while her technique and tone of voice are impeccable, her signing instructor, the Master (Oscar Ferrari), wants to hear more emotion and passion expressed in her delivery. Coming out of a relationship which has been cruelly ended by Conrado telling her that he no longer loves her, does indeed stir those deep emotions that one would expect her to be able to draw upon for her singing, but instead Helena is completely devastated – so much so that she is completely unable to perform and, despite the offer of a residency at a prestigious Buenos Aires night club, she quits the band.
Where The Tango Singer the film then discovers the true nature of the tango is not just in the emotions of jealousy turning to violence and its expression through song or dance, but, in recognition of the fact that there is also an immigrant experience underlying the nature of the passions of the tango, it touches upon it in Helena’s desire for a new beginning and the chance to start afresh. This involves her leaving her homeland for Europe to stay with her younger brother Andy. There Helena meets Roberto (Bruno Todeschini) and becomes reacquainted with the tango song, but there are many personal challenges that she needs to overcome in order to find a way to live with the past.
The storyline is not quite as linear as it might appear, the film slipping into the tenor of Helena’s state of mind (to such an extent that there is a possibility that the rebirth isn’t anything more than a dream or a song), but through the deliberate pace and rhythm of the scenes, through elliptical shifts in time and location, between consciousness and complete abandon, between near-catatonia and flashes of violence, the director finds a pure expression of the nature of the tango. More than being purely visual though, the singing and the songs complement and comment on the sometimes abstract nature of Helena’s experience – allowing the voice, its tone and the words touch on those otherwise inexpressible emotions.