DANZON (Mexico, 1991) ***
Both films have won the Best Picture award at the Latino Film Festival in New York, respectively in 1990 and 1991, and diverse other prizes. "Danzon" was best Mexican film in Mexico, with Maria Rojo copping the Best Actress award at the Chicago and the Valladolid (Spain) Festivals.
Julia, a telephone company operatrix in Mexico City, is a cheerful soul whose one passion is "danzon," a ballroom dance originating in Haiti and originally patterned after French cotillion dances. Via Cuba it became popular and quickly spread to the Mexican port of Veracruz one century ago.
For 6 years, Julia has been getting top prizes in danzon contests, always with the same partner, Carmelo. Carmelo is fiftyish, always immaculately dressed in a chic white suit and hat. Oddly (or not so oddly if you think that the realistic "Danzon" has discreet elements of fantasy and symbolism), Julia knows next to nothing about Carmelo, whom she meets only at the dance hall. "He's married, all men are married" says a friend, but Julia discounts this.
One day, Carmelo disappears. Julia is not only left without a dancing companion but somehow realizes that the man meant a lot to her. On the slightest of clues, she goes to Veracruz, presumably Carmelo's home town, to look for him. There she stays in a shabby hotel frequented by "ladies of the night," makes friends with various women, principally with the originally gruff owner, with a prostitute with a cute baby, and with a gentle transvestite nightclub "artist" whom Julia always refers to as "she. " They all try to help her locate Carmelo.
Near the end of her mini-Odyssey Julia has a fling with a much younger man, then calmly and happily returns to Mexico City where, in the ballroom, a wonderful surprise awaits her.
"Danzon" is linear and episodic and linear, and, like the dance itself, slow. It is constructed-- on purpose-- along the lines of older popular Mexican movies, with a kind of pervasive naivete.
What it tries to accomplish is threefold. The film is an affectionate paean to danzon and local music for the masses, and simultaneously it is a political statement by Ms. Novaro (who majored in sociology) since it celebrates autochthonous tradition as opposed to imported modernism. "Danzon" is also about the "growing up" of an already grown woman. And it focuses too on the strength of sisterhood, of women sticking together.
In a way, "Danzon" shares with several films of recent years a trend towards populism. While the former Soviet bloc nations are anxious to do away with screen proletarians, other countries seem to be adding them to their productions.
"Danzon"s personal points are made quietly, and Julia is played with the right mix of high spirits, resolution and worry. The musical points are made quite raucously. The sounds vary from the playing of accomplished bands or well sung, very Mexican sentimental vocals (from records) to strident or cacophonous blarings.
Worked in quite naturally and nicely photographed is the town of Veracruz, a port city that must be the dullest and least picturesque in Mexico, though compared to Mexico City's horrendous pollution and congestion, the movie shows crisply and palpably Veracruz's clean, fresh sea air and its airy, uncrowded places.
I looked, however, in vain for the famous Cafe de la Parroquia where the best coffee in Mexico is served and sold. Perhaps it was there, but not pointedly enough shown to be identified.
This, in a sense is typical of "Danzon. " The movie feels as though it were trying to avoid specificities of time and place. It could be set in the 1980s or decades earlier. The Mexico City practitioners of the dance wear Sunday-best 1950s clothes, the Veracruzans' summery outfits are undatable. The cars and the radios are older. The shabby freighters have no age.
There's an advantage to this generalizing, but at the same time this spills into a kind of mildness and vagueness that might border on dullness for those viewers accustomed to more dramatic action. Visually, a symptom of this is the systematic use of long shots when closeups are expected. Plot-wise, the lack of spelling out things makes you wonder how Julia, who declares herself broke soon after arriving in Veracruz, finances her stay and the gifts she brings back to Mexico City.
Unexpectedly for a Mexican work "Danzon" pursues understatement rather than broad filmic discourse. On one occasion, this becomes unwittingly funny, as when Julia joins her new, temporary young lover in his boat. Their lovemaking is unseen and only alluded to by the up and down movements of the ship's hull. On the other hand, when, the next day, the young man reappears with his hair cut short, Julia's dismay at seeing him look even younger is touchingly effective.
For some viewers "Danzon" will be too leisurely and lacking in strong rhythms (except for the music) or incidents. But it certainly has a special kind of sly charm and it is an interesting addition of movies by women and about women.