REVIEW: ‘Dance of the Forty One’ is Every Kind of Heartbreaking

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Dance of the Forty One

Dance of the Forty One is a fictionalized account of the infamous eponymous raid on a high-society party in Mexico City in 1901; a key historical event in queer Mexican history. The film is directed by David Pablos and stars Alfonso Herrera as Ignacio de la Torre, Emiliano Zurita as Evaristo Rivas, and Mabel Cadena as Amada Díaz. Ignacio is a member of a society of high-ranking and wealthy gay Mexico City elites. His recent marriage to Amada, President Porfirio Díaz’s (Fernando Becerril) eldest daughter, has secured him a position in Congress and he intends to use it to surmount an insurgency candidacy for president. But his troubled home life is making his political aspirations more difficult.

The tragedy of both Ignacio and Amada is heartwrenching. Ignacio is gay in a time and place where there is simply no place for that. He is forced into marriage and in turn, is abusive and neglectful. Amada is keenly aware of Igancio’s disloyalty and disaffection. But she is a woman, the daughter of the country’s powerful president, and as revealed in a somewhat confusing scene, was born of wedlock from an Indigenous woman. All of these attributes painfully and clearly contribute to her stature, especially her skin color as she is clearly the only brown woman in a court of very pale relatives and confidantes. Through this all, she has no recourse but to channel her own frustration into attempting to fix Ignacio. If not for his sake, at the least for her own.

This is a period piece and an excellent one at that. The costumes and sets are outstanding. From exquisitely embroidered dresses to gorgeous art pieces and home decor, I found the atmosphere absolutely stunning. A humorous exchange about the advent of inflatable bicycle tires was indeed endearing. But moreover, as a period piece, Dance of the Forty One does not assign more modern notions of queer or feminist liberation to the characters. Not that that is inherently unwelcome in period pieces but in the case of this film, the total lack of self-awareness in either Ignacio or Amada for their tragedies is what makes the film so powerful.

Rather than using the characters’ own admissions of disdain for the social order to bestow emotional weight on the movie, consistent and sharp juxtapositions between Ignacio’s home life and his private life encapsulate all of the tragedy on their own. In one of the first few scenes, one of the most deeply uncomfortable sex scenes I have ever witnessed plays out. Ignacio is completely disinterested and Amada is mortified. It happens before the film explicitly makes clear Ignacio’s sexuality. So when very shortly thereafter he has a passionate and intimate few moments with Eva before being interrupted, the contrast is harrowing. The interruption itself embodies the immense pressure on Ignacio as he lives this double, secret life. But the juxtaposing moments of frustration with those of rapture and joy deepen the feeling of pity towards Ignacio and Amada alike. Ignacio, of course, for his inability to live his fullest life, and Amada as well for being held back by her belief that she has to power to fix him.

There is a lot of silence throughout the film and frankly, not a deep plot, so it is the long scenes of exasperation and elation that carry the film. The switch that Herrera is able to flip between his time at home with Amada and his time out with Eva is laudable. And the absolute torrent of emotion Cadena displays opposite him as well as the utter exuberance displayed on each of the club of 42’s ensemble of actors make the film totally enchanting. I couldn’t help but feel terribly for every single person on screen knowing how the tragedy would eventually end. The party scenes are all so well-done as they exhibit a total liberation of gender and sexuality and what such a liberated world could be. The final scene at the infamous party is glorious. And it is followed up by a painfully tragic ending that you can’t be prepared for, even if you’ve read the history of the Dance of the Forty One.

The famous opera Carmen is a major theme throughout Dance of the Forty One. “Habanera” plays in the background often and, for viewers who are familiar with the opera’s plot, or quickly search online like I did, it frames much of the way the film is seen. The only question is: who is Carmen and who is Don José? I thought throughout the film that I knew with certainty which character was the one chasing after somebody who would never be theirs. But when a final death punctuates the film in the most audibly uncomfortable credits-roll I have ever endured, it dawned on me just how wrong I was the whole time. Realizing the true nature of the Carmen analogy completely changed my viewing of the film for the better as it cemented by recognizing of how multifaceted the tragedy was. It was a masterful use of reference that never felt out of place either, since the film features so many operas and piano playing.

Dance of the Forty One is an excellent film with impactful acting, excellent period pieces, and an absolutely woeful exploration of how compulsory gender and sexuality roles have and continue to be potent purveyors of tragedy. I am still processing the masterful juxtapositions of resentment and joy throughout the film for how impactful they are without ever needing to place the characters outside of the expectations one would have of high society in the early 20th Century. In fact, it is the very pairing of neatly met expectations in Ignacio and Amada’s home lives with the truth of their private lives that make the film so completely impactful.

Dance of the Forty One is streaming now on Netflix.

Dance of the Forty One
9/10

TL;DR

Dance of the Forty One is an excellent film with impactful acting, excellent period pieces, and an absolutely woeful exploration of how compulsory gender and sexuality roles have and continue to be potent purveyors of tragedy. I am still processing the masterful juxtapositions of resentment and joy throughout the film for how impactful they are without ever needing to place the characters outside of the expectations one would have of high society in the early 20th Century. In fact, it is the very pairing of neatly met expectations in Ignacio and Amada’s home lives with the truth of their private lives that make the film so completely impactful.