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Movie Reviews : Humor, History and Celebration in ‘Tango Bar’

Carnality on the dance floor is often incarnated, in the movies at least, by the tango. Rudolph Valentino cracking his whip; lovely Dominique Sanda whirling Stefania Sandrelli in a torrid clinch. . . . That’s how we visualize the tango, usually under chandeliers ablaze above a tiled floor, in a night pulsing with tropical winds and sexual heat.

But, in “Tango Bar,” (Laemmle’s Fine Arts), a movie that’s both history and celebration of the tango, the film makers play the dances and songs lightly. There’s an affectionately jokey quality, a wink behind the strut. Director Marcos Zurinaga and his smashing choreographers, emcee (Raul Julia), singers (Valeria Lynch, Ruben Juarez) and dancers (including Nelida y Nelson of “Tango Argentino”) approach “Tango Bar” like a romp. They’re experts who are going to kid all the silly American or European perversions of the dance, while showing us--slyly, knowingly--the real stuff.

The movie is staged as a double reminiscence, professional and personal, by three longtime friends and cabaret artists who form a crackling tango triangle before Argentina’s post-Peron military takeover separates them. Now, 10 years later, they meet again, in a reunion fraught with doubts and tensions: Raul Julia as Ricardo, the pianist-composer; pop star Valeria Lynch as the much-desired Elena, and Ruben Juarez as suave bandoneon -squeezer Antonio, the guy who fled the Fascists and left his best friend with his girl.

This story is nothing much, “Holiday Inn” gone Latin, and, until the closing note of tango solidarity, Zurinaga doesn’t bring out very many political undercurrents. The little dramatic interludes, with the tormented trio staring at each other somberly, meaningfully, are a drag on the action.

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But if the dramatic tableaux are static, the cabaret show is mostly a delight. On a strict naturalistic level, there’s something over-scaled and inexplicable about it, like Busby Berkely Broadway numbers in “Footlight Parade.” Here, on an even tinier stage, a dot of a platform in a minuscule nightclub, Ricardo or Antonio describe some tango epoch or historical tidbit, and suddenly a dozen dancers appear on a vast set--a bordello or grand ballroom, dripping with decor--only to explode to the habanera-like rhythms and vanish. Is it a reverie? Some mystical vision?

There are also the archival clips (an unseen 16-millimeter projector in back?) showing everything from Julia and Teri Garr’s number in “One from the Heart” to a determined, puffy tango between Peter Ustinov and Angela Lansbury to one sequence that softly satirizes the American’s love of “La Cumparsita"--with Fred and Wilma Flintstone, Valentino, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Gene Kelly all taking a whack at it.

None of it matters, as long as we’re amused. And Lynch has a scarringly passionate voice, while Julia and Juarez, as the narrators, work with the seamless near-telepathy of a team like Hope and Crosby. They have the gently cutthroat one-up-manship down cold, slaying each other with an arched eyebrow, a roguish smirk.

The dances are ravishing and so is much of the original score by Atilio Stampone. Set in this bed of voluptuous self-kidding wit, they’re amusing, too; they have to be, because “Tango Bar” (Times-rated: Family) is utterly dependent on its musical numbers. The serious thread is snarled and draggy; the logistics of the show are preposterous, but the dances redeem everything. The sinuous Spanish rhythms, echoes of Africa, whispers of the Argentine ghettoes, the swagger and hauteur, the dips, the bends, the sudden almost delirious swoops. . . . As long as these tango men and ladies have us in their grip, it’s more than enough.

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