It is fitting that Carlos Saura's sumptuous yet meditative Tango opened commercially on Valentine's Day weekend, for it is a lover's vision of both the classic dance form and filmmaking itself. Like Fran‡ois Truffaut's Day for Night and Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, Tango explores the collaborative art of cinema through the mind of an introspective director at the treacherous crossroads of middle age. But since the film within a film, as well as Tango itself, is ultimately about the dance, Saura wisely resists the temptation to overemphasize the director's neuroses (a la Bob Fosse in All That Jazz). Saura, a master of the musical/dance genre (Carmen, Flamenco) allows the tango, in its myriad expressive forms, to take center stage, telling the story and igniting the senses with its sinuous, elegant moves.

The film opens on a gray day in Buenos Aires, then hones in on a melancholy man with a sensitive, intelligent face maneuvering around his sparsely furnished apartment with a cane. From then on, Saura and the remarkable cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor) work their magic indoors, using shadows, screens and brilliant colors, shooting in a vast set outside Buenos Aires. The man, Mario Suarez (Miguel Angel Solà), sits down to start his screenplay, beginning with the direction to pan Buenos Aires on a gray winter day. And so it goes, the scenes evolving in the director's mind and before our eyes simultaneously.

Obsessed by his ex-wife, a charismatic dancer named Laura Fuentes (Cecilia Narova), Mario nonetheless throws himself into his latest film project, on the tango. As he meets with the cinematographer, composer, costume and set designers, dancers and musicians, he imagines tango scenes which play out his personal drama. After helplessly watching a passionate duet between Laura and her new lover, he stabs her, only to wake from his reverie.

As did Saura in his research for the film, Mario visits a tango bar, where he's entreated by a gangster (who he learns is also a producer for his film) to cast a beautiful young dancer. Since the girl, Elena Flores (Mia Maestro), happens to be the gangster's mistress, Mario discovers not only his ingenue and new love interest, but also a plot!

Tango demands concentration and the willingness to go with Saura's unhurried, European pace. It also takes an interest in dance, but with such spectacular choreography and dancing, it's sure to recruit converts. With her slicked-back black hair and kohl-rimmed dark eyes, Narova invests her character with a smoldering Maria Callas-like intensity. She's especially marvelous dancing an erotic tango in period dress with Maestro, whose delicate looks suggest a young Audrey Hepburn. Ballet dancer Julio Bocca and several tango stars lend their talents to a range of compositions exploring this passionate yet precise dance form that includes rehearsal exercises, a romantic duet, a formal tango set in a nightclub, and a gang tango performed by two groups of men. One production number powerfully evokes a massacre in a police state.

Employing Lalo Schifrin's hypnotic original score as well as traditional tango tunes, the soundtrack is as seductive as the dance-and that's saying a lot.

--Wendy Weinstein