Tango Glories (Fermin), which opens the Chicago Latino Film Festival this Thursday at 6 PM, belongs to a genre of Argentinean cinema to which I’m especially partial. Light entertainment based upon the integration of improbable or supernatural events into the flow of everyday life, the genre has roots in magic realism literature and the surrealist filmmaking of Luis Buñuel. The films are generally sweet and lightweight, at times suggesting adaptations of daydreams. I’m familiar with only one auteur associated with this genre—Eliseo Subiela, whose Man Facing Southeast was a sleeper hit on the U.S. art house circuit in the mid-1980s—though I see about one film in this vein every year, more often than not at the Latino Film Festival. For whatever reason, these movies have never caught on with a wider U.S. audience.
I’m not sure why. Regardless of their overall quality, these movies always convey a genial pleasure in storytelling for its own sake, something I can’t say about much light entertainment coming of out Hollywood these days. Consider the plot of Tango Glories. The movie centers on a shy psychiatrist who investigates the most mysterious patient at the public hospital where he’s begun a four-year residency. The patient is an 85-year-old man who for decades has spoken only in lyrics to old tango songs. What made this man lose his mind? The movie—scripted by Oliver Kolker and directed by Kolker and Hernan Findling—reveals the old man’s past in nonchronological flashbacks as the psychiatrist delves into the story. He learns that the old man was the star of his local dance hall in the 1940s, that he married the most beautiful girl in town, and has some buried secrets related to the 1970s military dictatorship.
The revelations become more dramatic as the story proceeds, and the segues between past and present become more inventive. It’s in these qualities that Tango Glories harkens back to the surrealist tradition, as the narrative charts the discovery of a hidden world beneath our own. The movie’s not as wacky as something like Subiela’s Don’t Die Without Telling Me Where You’re Going (surely one of the greatest of all movie titles), in which an inventor, working on a machine that will record his dreams, falls in love with a ghost after his machine malfunctions and he finds himself able to communicate with the dead. Yet the storytelling logic is the same. Both films exude childlike wonder at their own developments, as though the filmmakers were discovering the tales along with the audience. And like Subiela, Kolker and Findling establish a fun, self-aware style grounded in playful camera movements reminiscent of movie musicals and warm, shadowy cinematography that suggests the narrative is playing out in an attic or a fort made of blankets.
In between the flashbacks of Tango Glories, the psychiatrist starts changing his own story. As he meets with the old man’s family members and former colleagues, he ingratiates himself in the local tango scene. It turns out that the old man’s granddaughter is a tango instructor. She’s also a vivacious, unmarried woman around the psychiatrist’s own age. Will this lifelong mama’s boy finally enter the dating scene?
The present-day character study is low-key, and the investigation is decidedly low-stakes. The psychiatrist may risk losing his residency for obsessing over a single patient, but as an individual he stands only to gain—by investigating the old man’s story, he gains confidence, makes new friends, and learns to appreciate the unpredictability of life. If this sounds like an exercise in wish fulfillment, then so be it. These wishes aren’t self-serving, but in fact reflect a desire for more significant human interaction. One can also detect the movie’s generosity in the gentle characterizations. With the exception of the tango instructor’s hotheaded boyfriend, there are no villains among the major characters. Almost everyone is entitled to at least one benign quirk, reminding us of the wonderful variety of human lives. Without giving too much away, Tango Glories does introduce some bad people during the flashbacks set during Argentina’s periods of dictatorship. The movie never delves too far into the horrors of modern Argentine history—this daydream never becomes a nightmare—yet the allusions are nonetheless purposeful. They remind us that stories can provide much-needed refuge from real life.