Assassination Tango (2003)
One fateful day Francis Ford Coppola suggested to Robert Duvall that Duvall somehow combine his love of tango (a fifteen year affair) with his love of filmmaking. The result of that conversation is Assassination Tango, a wandering, drawn-out, surprisingly unfocused film about a hit-man in his twilight years (although he addresses the issue in the film, Duvall is playing a younger man’s role) who gets stranded in Argentina during a job and discovers the fascinating world of Argentinean tango. Fascinating to Duvall no doubt, but tango, like pottery, or stamp collecting, or origami, is an acquired taste, and for a somewhat sophisticated aficionado of dance in general – it holds no inherent interest for an unaffiliated audience. Mr. Duvall, who wrote the screenplay, directs, and stars (he did the same in the far superior The Apostle), makes a glaringly apparent mistake in believing that all he needed to do was add the word and theme of “assassination” to “tango” and the tango would become, by extension, intriguing and relevant to his audience. It is a form of condescension that Duvall could only perpetrate while being blinded by true love.
Duvall has a great passion for the tango and he, in all sweet sincerity, believed that if he corralled you into the theatre by playing up the action/thriller aspects of the movie, you would thank him later for the façade; because you have been charmed by the old world beauty of Buenos Aires and by the smooth yet succinct steps of the hypnotic dance.
It’s like the rabbi who tells his talmid to come over to his apartment to “hang out”, and when the talmid gets there, the rabbi makes him clean the entire apartment for Pesach including a scraping of the industrial size refrigerator with a toothbrush. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but both are annoying.
I do not mean to sound like a boor. Argentina is a picturesque country with a bold personality and the tango is a most impressive dance, but if someone truly wanted to learn about either, a documentary or travel video would serve Duvall’s purpose without the excess, unedited baggage.
Some scenes disguised as mere dialogue are clearly unchecked, unscripted speeches enlightening us as to the history, magic, danger, and importance of the dance with lines like “tango is love and hate”. That is a powerful statement, but I, as a lame gringo, sit and wonder why? – show me how it is all those things. The only dance I can do is the Electric Slide.
Questioning Duvall’s intentions and instincts is not a simple thing. He is one of the great living actors of our day – he is a legend – he is a true artist of the genre. However, his chosen directorial style for Assassination Tango is problematic.
“I had wonderful actors,” he said, “wonderful people able to improvise well, set it, and then improvise it. From ink to behavior, it really becomes behavior to behavior. Nothing is precious, and all the actors could change anything to make it work.”
The prime example of this style is in the curious performance of admitted non-actress Luciana Pedraza who is also Duvall’s girlfriend – they met on the streets of Argentina and she was unaware of his fame at the time (or so she claims, as Duvall likes to joke).
“Virtually no other director would risk giving parts to nonprofessional actors, but he does it all the time” said producer Rob Carliner. “The first thing he’ll say to an actor is ‘make up stuff if you want’. He wants his actors to make it fit for themselves.”
The result of this audacious method is lingering, toneless, weightless scenes that may be uncommonly realistic for film, but are also, to be perfectly honest, boring. It is hard to imagine in this age of Reality TV, but not everything and everyone a camera points at is worth watching.
Even after all the negativity above is said, Duvall himself – his individual performance is touching and felt – (because he is an actor and damn near one of the best) – and there is much to admire about a man who leaves his heart on the screen. Nevertheless, this is not the magnificent tango film Duvall expected. It is a very personal labor of love with an emphasis, at least for the audience, on the labor.
Q & A with Robert Duvall
Q:When you began this process, you said you started with your love of the tango…
Q: Can you take me through how you formulated the assassination theme? Or when you started with your love of tango – where did you go from there? How many stories came to your mind?
A: I didn’t know where to go. Sometimes you use your first impression or your first thrust - you have to go with it - it may be the best. I just thought of an assassin.
Q: Was that the first?
A: Well…kind of. It fell into place because of the whole underworld thing (Duvall quotes one of the great tango dancers who said that “to be a good tango dancer you should be a thief, a pimp, a bookie, and some kind of criminal”). Then it was like, I gave him a family and everything and I started thinking a little: Why would he go to Argentina? How can I get him to Argentina? How will we get him there?
A friend of mine said, well, he can knock off one of those generals who got immunity, which could happen – I know this from a parallel situation that happened and it was freaky – this could happen. So there are still guys walking around who could be what you would call an assassin from another country to get rid of the families that still live there…so piece by piece it came to me and so when my friend said get him to get one of those guys who just got off…it made a lot of sense.
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From the Eliyahu Ha’Navi Files
One minor but substantial matter explored in the film for Duvall’s character (and perhaps for Duvall himself) is that he is an outsider. He is a faithful lover to the Spanish culture yet he is and always will be, to them, “a Yankee.”
Only in retrospect did I realize that this theme eerily reflected an event that took place earlier on, the day of the screening while I rode the LIRR.
Sitting across the aisle from me was a big-boned Latin woman, her three year old daughter who kept slapping her mother in the face, and a small dog with its head popping out of a bag.
Naturally, we struck up a conversation.
The mother, seeing my yarmulke (it always gives us away!) decided to tell me about her link to Judaism, beginning by revealing that people always ask her if her daughter is Jewish because she is always shaking back and forth – truth be told, the kid was shuckeling rather furiously.
Turns out, the woman’s step-father for a number of years was a Jew by the name of Cohen. She told me how she loves all the Jewish cooking her (step) Grandma Minnie taught her how to make. “I love gefilte fish. I make great matzoh ball soup. I love kishka, but you can’t eat it so much. Potato pancakes are great. Tuna fish…” (I didn’t point out that that last one isn’t necessarily Jewish.)
What struck me later was something she said about the Cohen brothers (her step-father and uncle) who both married Puerto Rican women, have Puerto Rican kids, eat Puerto Rican food, and dance Puerto Rican dances. As she said, “They’re more Puerto Rican than I am.”
These were Jewish boys raised by gefilte fish making Grandma Minnie someplace in The Bronx, and they became absorbed completely by the world around them. They were intoxicated at a young age by whatever enticements they experienced in the Latin American world and they never looked back.
And so today, on some colorful street corner in The Bronx there stands a beautiful young Puerto Rican girl named Rachel Cohen who descends from a line of Jewish priests all the way back to Aharon HaCohen.
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