Monday, 5 July 2021

Streaming on Netflix - Janice Tong recommends DANCE OF THE 41 (EL BAILE DE LOS 41, David Pablos, Mexico, 2020)

If you’ve read my review of Malmkrog, you may recall that I quoted from French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech that he gave at the Bi-centenary commemorations of Napoleon at Institut de France in Paris. “To concede nothing to those who would erase the past because it does not suit their image of the present.”

The sanitising of history would never change prejudices, nor will it protect the next generation from the same; so brave a tale is told by David Pablos and screenwriter, Monika Revilla. The title of the film, El baile de los 41 refers to the night of November 17, 1901, where a raid was carried out in a private home in Mexico City; and the police arrested 41 unnamed men, (rumoured to be a 42nd person), where half the men were dressed in ladies’ fineries, adorned in European styled satin and silk dresses, accessorised with elegant wigs, jewellery and make-up; whilst the others were dressed in immaculately-tailored black-tie attire complete with white gloves.

This is a fictionalised account of the lead up to this historical night - a night which made history because it was the first time that the media in Mexico openly reported on gay men and their activities.
The story loosely follows Ignacio de la Torre, the newly appointed son-in-law (yes, appointed is the right word used here) to Mexico’s then president Porfirio Díaz (an impressive Fernando Becerril). Ignacio is played by Alfonso Herrera (you may have seen him in Sense8 or Ozark on Netflix), and commands a strong, almost formidable presence. A well educated businessman, Ignacio was well respected, politically minded and power-hungry; but he was also a gay man and led a secret life away from his new home. The marriage to Amada was a farce and whilst he had ‘served’ his duty to consummate their marriage, it was a pretty gruelling affair by his own account. He was not merely disinterested in her, he was incapable of loving her as his wife, because she was a woman.
There exists a club t0 which Ignacio belongs; there he and other members are able to freely and truly be themselves. They meet, have dinners, cross-dress, sing opera (there’s an exquisite reenactment of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria towards the end of the film), play card games, and of course, have sex with other men, (there’s a beautifully-lit orgy scene) without the prejudices of the world imposing in on them. In this private world, everything seem to be suffused with a golden light, opulent and rich. The bath tub set design has a stage like ambience; there’s high colour in gilded and decorated rooms. We are literally transported into another world and, sadly, this world is almost dream-like (so we know the occupants would have to be woken up at some point) and far away from the rather harsh and stoic countenance of the ‘real’ world, coveted in a sombre green-grey palette. This latter environment, is where we find Amada (despite her fineries, and her beautiful house, her life is literally darker and paler in comparison).
For me, some of the most memorable moments in this film belong to the onscreen time between Ignacio and his lover, Evaristo or Eva as he’s called. A beautifully nuanced performance by Emiliano Zurita, whose quiet looks and sweet eyes reveal to us a tender fragility - of a man in love, standing in the presence of his lover. They were beautiful to watch, the horse-back ride after a morning of love and their short reprieve in the river brought a sense of freedom to their hidden selves. The scene in bed of their restful figures after being together shows us that love is love, and neither god nor man should judge anyone for feeling this emotion.

Herrera and Zurita worked for two or more months to get to know each other as a person to finely tune their on-screen performance.
So, why would a story like this be brave? It is after all 2021 and same-sex marriage has been legalised in Mexico since 2009 (the first in Latin-America and before the US Supreme Court passed its law).
The ‘outing’ of the 41 brought homosexuality to the public eye for the very first time in 1901- it was the press who coined the term “the dance of the forty-one”. But at the time, there was no LGBTQ rights for these men. Diaz was a corrupt 7 term president who served his own interest. There was no trial; the men who cross-dressed were ridiculed and humiliated, they were made to sweep the streets in their attire. Some were sent to Yucatán to assist in military activities; not to help the soldiers fight the Mayans, but to carry out lowly duties like digging trenches and cleaning latrines.
Even now, more than 120 years later, there is still a stigma attached to the number 41 in Mexican society. I must admit I knew nothing of this, and was shocked to learn how ingrained it was - army battalions and police do not have a 41st unit, many hospitals and hotels don’t have the room number 41 and buildings with no 41st floor; the number 41 is still associated with gay men in a negative way and used as a term of denigration and shame.
There is still murkiness associated with the ‘dance’. Some reports say that the names of those arrested were not released due to their elite status in upper-class society, in addition, the rumoured mixing between classes in the 41 was also taboo. Ignacio’s name was reportedly dropped from the newspaper because he was the President’s son in law in order to not taint the government.
A strong performance from Mabel Cadena as Amada, whose demands of her husband were not uncalled for, but her lack of tolerance for this behaviour (staying out late, not fulfilling his duty as a husband) and finally, her discovery of the love letters from Eva cast her heart in stone, finally sealed the fate of the 41. Let’s not forget she was a woman who was more at home wielding a shot gun than sitting at the piano and her rage was not to be contained until the other's heart was torn. Although as an audience we end up hating her, but we should see her as another victim of her father’s selfishness. Her marriage to Ignacio was more of a business transaction than a consideration for her happiness. 

David Pablos

It took Pablos more than six years to develop this film. He received a grant from the government to develop young talents. For Pablos, it was an opportunity to bring out of the “edges or shadows” LGBTQ identity and history in Mexico, in order to educate the new generations, as well as to recognise this “brotherhood” that had been taboo for all those years, and restore to them the dignity they deserve on screen. Pablos and his incredible cast, (he made sure that most of the cast in the ‘41’ group were openly gay) were brought to life by the sensitive cinematography of Carolina Costa. The production design and wonderful costumes make this an opulent historical drama that carries with it an important message at its heart.

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