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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review: Pina (2011)

* * *

Director: Wim Wenders

The special committees that determine the nominees for Oscar's foreign language and documentary categories are often rightly derided for their middle of the road, unchallenging choices. More often than not, the truly groundbreaking, truly great films are left out in the cold, inspiring handwringing and angry rants from Oscar watchers, while the actual nominees inspire little mor than a shrug. Although this year saw the snubbing of a number of critically loved documentaries, you've got to hand it to AMPAS for nominating a film as outside the box and different as Pina. Helmed by German master filmmaker Wim Wenders, this narrativeless 3D celebration of choreographer Pina Bausch is not what you'd expect from the typically staid Academy.

It's somewhat difficult to describe Pina as it both does and does not tell a story. It flows freely between different dance performances, focusing on four of Pina Bausch's more famous pieces: The Rite of Spring, Cafe Mueller (which Pedro Almodovar fans will recognize from Talk To Her), Kontakthof, and Vollmond. Interspersed with snippets of the performances are talking heads in which members of Bausch's dance company reminisce about her, discussing her influence and the way that she worked. The film functions as a eulogy, of sorts, to the woman who died just two days before the film began production, and though Bausch's absence is inescapable, her presence also dominates the finished product.

The premise of the film is fairly simple, consisting as it does of dance performances, talking heads, and bits of archival footage of Bausch at work. However, Wenders doesn't unfold any of this in a straight forward way. The talking heads aren't typical, in that they don't consist of the performers talking directly to the camera, but rather as voiceovers that play over shots of the speaker sitting in front of a portrait backdrop; and the performances themselves are broken up, shown from various angles, and in sections throughout the film. Wenders emphasizes the craft behind Bausch's work, exploring how she incorporated the elements into her pieces (the use of water in Vollmond is particularly striking, especially in 3D), and how she inspired the members of her dance company, who speak of her almost as if they're speaking of a diety.

I'm not generally a fan of 3D but, as with Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I think the medium is used very effectively in Pina. Wenders uses the extra dimensions to put the audience directly into the work - although that does, ironically, subvert Bausch's vision and intent with respect to how the audience is meant to see her work. Still, it's a visually striking, often enthralling, and moving tribute to a groundbreaking artist and one that should definitely been seen on the big screen.

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