Their eyes lock in across the darkened room. They share a smile, and as their finely-waxed mustaches meet, they kiss.
“The Dance of the 41 (El Baile de los 41)” is Mexico’s “Age of the Not-So-Innocent,” a beautifully baroque period piece about a signature political/sexual scandal for a culture wrapped up in Latin machismo.
It happened in 1901, a “raid” on a private club that ensnared many of the country’s shakers and movers — Congressmen, bankers, the son-in-law of the president — generations of men in the exquisite beards and mustaches of the day, cross-dressed and dancing at a gala ball.
“Dance” tells the story of this exclusive “club,” whose members donned blindfolds, stripped off their shirts and confessed to their fellow practitioners of “Socratic love,” “Soy maricón.”
The story begins with the marriage of the Ignacio de la Torres (Alfonso Herrera) to Amada Diaz (Mabel Cadena) The groom, freshly appointed to Congress, becomes “the nation’s son-in-law” as Amada is President Porfirio Diaz’s daughter.
But whatever political advantages having him in the family entail, in the bedroom it’s instantly obvious that all isn’t as promised in the bedroom. Ignacio has to fake his way through it.
Meeting a colleague in government, Evaristo (Emiliano Zurita) confirms it. Yes, gaydar predated radar. And then we see him at his “club,” home to the “late night dinners” that keep him away from home and his increasingly frustrated and then furious wife.
“Tell your wife that we ladies LOVED her dress,” the other members cackle.
The strained marriage drives “El Baile,” but its life is this club where Ignacio can be himself, and doesn’t hesitate to. But amidst the hedonism, the drinking and orgies, staged operas and ribald pantomimes, initiations (for Evaristo, “Eva”) and figuring out what all these candlelit bathtubs are for, Ignacio commits a cardinal sin for the many powerful and married members. He falls in love.
“Dance of the 41” is a gorgeous, ornate and tragic romance that seems filmed and acted at arm’s length. We can’t embrace the characters of their plight, because the dry treatment ensures nobody is that sympathetic, no one is obviously worth rooting for.
The performances, save for Cadena, who brings hurt and fire to Amada, have a bloodlessness about them that hampers our connection to the characters.
The victim here is Amada, the one lied to, mistreated and gaslit by a husband who insists she has health and sleeping problems as he moves out of their bedroom. Ignacio may be derisively called “Nachito” by the bride’s military man brother, with a lamb left behind as a taunt at one point. But he’s a bit of a bastard, and impossible to feel sorry for as presented here.
Amada is likewise problematic, high-born and determined to make a go of this even if she has to burn his world down around him to keep up appearances.
Coming twenty years after “Y tu mama tambien,” “Dance of the 41” seems curiously cautious and tentative, aside from the orgy and sex scenes and the fact that it “outs” a Congressman and son-in-law of a long-serving Mexican president.
What’s served up is dry history that neither judges nor commits to what might be “tragic” in this story, which is understandable, given the principals.
That takes “Dance” into the realm of that Martin Scorsese movie I referenced earlier. Like “Age of Innocence,” this melodrama feels preserved under glass, an emotionally barren account of a “scandal” and its (briefly shown) aftermath, regarded from afar without much sympathy for anybody involved.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, sex, nudity
Cast: Alfonso Herrera, Emiliano Zurita, Mabel Cadena, Fernando Becerril
Credits: Directed by David Paplos, script by Monika Revilla. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:39