Irlan Santos Da Silva, Isabela Coracy
CONCEIVED AND DIRECTED BY
Film Movement (US)
Labeled by Heat Magazine as "the Brazilian Billy Elliott," Only When I Dance follows the lives of two young Brazilians, Irlan and Isabela, as they attempt to use dancing to lift themselves and their families out of poverty while also, quite simply, pursuing their life's passions.
Virtually anyone would realize that dancing and Brazil go practically hand in hand, a fact confirmed by one mother in the film who points out that "All Brazilians know how to dance." Indeed, while this may be true, even in Brazil dance is seldom seen as a way of achieving success. This is especially true, it would appear, when you are attempting to rise out of poverty conditions in an art that often requires expensive, classes, uniforms and travel if one hopes to compete on an international level and achieve the desired success.
Irlan, a confident and focused young man, would appear on a certain level to be the most promising of the two actors with a finely tuned physique and a fiercely devoted, if low-income, family. At first, Irlan's father verbalizes that he was rather horrified by his son's rather unusual interest in a country that carries with it an undeniable machismo that permeates the entire culture. Yet, before long and upon realizing his son's true gift, this wary father has become his son's most diehard advocate to the point of tattooing his name on his forearm.
Isabela, on the other hand, may very well be as gifted as Irlan but is deemed less likely to succeed with her darker skin and less than finely tuned body that challenges the dancer's physique stereotypes and expectations that exist throughout the dance culture internationally. There is nothing, per se, wrong with the way that she dances, but Isabela's best may not be quite good enough.
British director Beadie Finzi (co-director of Unknown White Male) infuses Only When I Dance with a wonderful blend of emotional resonance with the vibrancy and electricity that one expects to find in dance-themed films. While both Irlan and Isabela are from what Americans would call "the wrong side of the tracks," they've both immersed themselves in dance with what could only be described as a will to survive neighborhoods where drugs are often seen as the only real way out.
Their instructor, Mariza, serves as both teacher and inspiration as she actually lives in one of Rio's wealthier neighborhoods but has committed herself to this dance school that provides at least modest hope to those across the tracks. Even still, the school certainly cannot and does not fund everything for even the most promising students and many will give up rather than persevere through the physical, financial and cultural challenges that exist if one is to have even of hope of becoming a professional dancer.
Where Only When I Dance falls a touch short is in its lack of addressing, at least in any thorough way, the variety of issues it raises including that of Irlan's masculinity issues, Isabela's body image issues and, of course, the overwhelming impact of the poverty and crime surrounding the dancers. While these issues are discussed briefly, it occasionally feels like Finzi wants to keep the film as light and inspirational, an understandable choice that still leaves the film feeling a bit less satisfying.
The ending of Only When I Dance, as well, feels a bit too cleanly resolved as if Finzi had decided herself to ensure closure that doesn't feel quite so natural.
The film's lensing is beautiful, combining the majesty and wonder of dance with the stark, desperate conditions of the culture in which both dancers are living out their dreams. Alan Levy's editing helps to give the film an immediacy that works wonders throughout the competitions and the varying routines.
An official selection of the 2010 Indianapolis International Film Festival, Only When I Dance is currently finishing up its festival run and is available on DVD through the Film Movement. For more information on the film, visit the film's website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic