I am not a big fan of 3D. I do not like the way it dims the screen’s colors, or how it uses cheap thrills to justify a more expensive ticket. But for the first time in my life, I was absorbed and completely engrossed in a movie precisely because of its use of 3D. 3D, as my friend Mara puts it, is usually used to reach out to the audience, to make the elements on screen feel more tangible and present. But in this movie, it is used to show depth, and the overall effect is a much more subtle form of emphasis that draws you into the movement and action on screen.
The movie I’m referring to is Pina, a film by director Wim Wenders described as a dance eulogy to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch. I happened to see it in the opening night of this year’s Cinemanila International Film Festival (which I will be partially covering), and it is a cinematic celebration of the life and work of Pina, who helped revolutionized German modern dance in the 1970s. Told through the dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal, a ballet company where she served as the main artistic director, the film showcases her most renowned stage pieces along with individual tributes of each of her dancers. These tributes provide some of the movie’s most poignant moments as they recall how Pina transformed and affected their life and craft.
I’ve never seen a dance performance in real life, so I was pleasantly surprised to see how affecting bodily movement can be. Each contortion acts as physical metaphors for certain emotions and experiences that aren’t always easy to decipher. It’s not always clear what their actions mean and whether or not there is a narrative being told, but the striking images naturally lend themselves to this sort of intellectual exercise, this desire to understand and dissect the multiple layers of meanings behind each dance. There is a constant conversation going on between the audience, the dancers and the director.
The movie’s biggest strength is its cinematography, and Wenders masterfully plays around with space to enhance the performances in the film. It is impressive how Wenders frames his shots, how he manipulates light and shadow, how he closes up on his dancers, how he lets us feel each bead of sweat drop, and how he suddenly pulls back and leaves us lost in a swarm of bodies all moving to the same beat. This is all aided by 3D, which he deploys with cautious restraint. I would also suggest that this is a wholly unique experience from watching a dance show live because the camera reduces the distance between the dancers and the audience, making it more participatory and engaging. For example, in the first sequence when a group of female dancers are trying to offer a red dress to an overbearing male figure in what seems like a mating ritual (again, what does that mean?), the camera adopts the perspective of the latter and we see the sequence happen from his point of view, something that can never be replicated live. The way Wenders presents Pina’s pieces can be very visually powerful – at times, he can make a specific gesture feel unsettling and painfully real.
This movie, like a dance sequence, is very fluid. It jumps back and forth between performances that it can feel very unstructured. But what holds it together is its reverence for Pina and her innovative creativity. It is not easy to make viewers connect with someone who they haven’t heard of before, and I bet that most people outside the dance world have no clue who she is. For the most part, the movie is successful in showing her iconoclastic status in the field, and how she inspired the dancers she choreographed to have faith in their bodies’ capacity to communicate profound emotions through action.
This movie isn’t for everyone. It has no overarching narrative, and we don’t really learn anything about Pina’s life except for brief insights scattered in bits and pieces throughout the film. But next to Tree of Life, this is the second time this year that I was moved by what I saw on screen. Pina is a unique, breathtaking cinematic experience that invites its viewers to ask themselves the question Pina posed, “What are we longing for? Where does all this yearning come from?”
Bottom Line: Pina is an artistic, technically masterful movie that pays tribute to the revolutionary choreographer Pina Bausch.