First impressions can be deceiving. The very thought of watching a documentary about a dancer, or dancing, regardless of Oscar nominations or credentials, was agonizing. Forty minutes before the screening was to start - mind you, as a critic (who gave me the license to call myself a critic? Oh yeah, you. The reader) I get in for free - I was still debating whether to drive the ten minutes to the theater and sacrifice my evening to watch what was surely going to be a drab documentary about something I care nothing about. Shame on me.
Good documentaries transcend their topic and deliver an experience beyond what is expected, and no documentary in the history of documentaries embodies this more than Pina, a film about some skilled avant-garde dancer who died two days before filming was supposed to start (she found out about the cancer five days earlier). The documentary is at once about her life and not at all about her. It's a documentary unlike anything I've ever seen before. It's an experience, the first documentary that absolutely should be seen in theaters, and - dare I say it - in 3D.
Yes, I am recommending you shell out money to go see a documentary about a dead dancer. In 3D.
Pina isn't the best documentary I've ever seen. There have others that have gripped me more because of the subject they explore, that teach us something about a small slice of history. But Pina is an incredibly engaging film, less a documentary than a performance piece that tells a story without being confined by plot or character, fully open to interpretation and raw emotion.
The movie more or less begins on a stage, with workers shoveling and raking dirt across it to create a beach, or a desert. A woman appears, face down on a red towel, the world dark except for her. She appears to be pleasuring herself, but it isn't clear. More women appear, staggering around like zombies yet simultaneously graceful, more light streaking across the beach. Men appear, shirtless, with toned bodies, their movements sharp and jagged. The women are afraid.
I have no idea what the scene means, or what it is meant to convey, but it is visually enthralling. The rest of the film is just like this, scene after scene of dance performances that are unlike any dance performances I've ever seen (not that I've seen many). Pina is dead, but the movie is an ode to her life's work, her passion, her performances reconstructed by her dance troupe. Few words are said other than a couple passing lines in remembrance. The whole documentary is about Pina, and at the same time it isn't about her at all.
As great as the dance performances are, the movie comes to life under the direction of director Wim Wenders. The cinematography (as well as the choreography) is incredible, the camera thrusting us into the center of each dance in a way that forces you to the edge of your seat. The colors are vibrant, the use of light and contrast amazing, the whole production rippling with emotion.
Of course, I have a short attention span, especially when it comes to dancing, and there are times when the movie lags. The film is what it is, and I'm not the target demographic, but I started to get bored toward the end. There is little arc to the movie other than a few scenes that piece everything together, and so it's never clear throughout its 100 minutes whether the end is close. This was obnoxious, but almost unavoidable with a production like this.
My own lack of appreciation for the arts aside, Pina is an incredibly moving and engaging documentary, easily the most visually enthralling documentary I've ever seen. In some ways it's a cheat - Pina documents an art form, not reality, and is therefore impossible to compare to, let alone allow it to compete against, other documentaries. Other documentaries seek to explain a complex topic in simple terms that audiences can understand. There isn't anything simple about Pina, other than it is a documentary that deserves to be seen and must be experienced. Go see it in theaters. I am so glad I did.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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