About 15 years ago, well past the midpoint of his impressive career, Spanish writer-director Carlos Saura quit being a purveyor of a sort of post-Buñuel neorealism and became that guy who made those movies about dancing – vivacious coffee-table flicks crackling with the precise passion of clicking heels. Tango is another in the series, but separate from the others by dint of its Pirandello-like pretensions. It is, for better or worse, Saura’s 8 1/2 .

The suffering central artist is one Mario Suarez (Miguel Angel Sola), less creatively blocked than unlucky in love. The film, which takes place in Argentina, details his mounting of a new production, as well as a new protégée, Elena (Mia Maestro), who happens to be the lover of the show’s main backer, a burly Mafioso named Angelo Larroca (Juan Luis Galiardo). This is less a story than a line to hang the several dance numbers on.

Fortunately the tangos are both melodramatic and sensual, an enticing combination of high art and cheap thrills. And we get all the variations: the expressive solo, the suggestive duet, the swirling latticework of an ensemble, filmed in austere silhouette or lurid color, framed as tableaux or in our face.

The thin storyline is thickened by the fact that we’re cued at the beginning to view the film as a fiction being devised by Mario. It opens with a man at a desk reading a script about a man at a desk reading a script. Saura’s handling of this device is less than rigorous and for long periods the film plays out like a conventional drama – between the dances – with just brief jolts to remind us that nothing here is necessarily real.

This is the type of film that usually gets pegged as a meditation on the intertwining of art and life, but on that level Tango is fairly sophomoric. Saura has developed, since his interest in dance has come to the forefront, into a first-rate director of classy surfaces. And with the acclaimed Vittorio Storaro handling the cinematography, Tango has some of his classiest surfaces yet.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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