We’re introduced, first by way of nimble, foot-doting close-ups, to a company of tango dancers in the first act of Mundo Alas, a film documenting a self-proclaimed “alternative tour” through Argentina completed by indigenous folksinger León Gieco and a host of local collaborators. The camera rhythmically widens its gaze in symmetry with the intimate, stop/start thrusts of the music accompaniment, lingering on the tight sway of limbs and pelvic intersections in a manner suggesting the controlled, observational caress of an enthralled spectator. And at the precise moment that the lyrical dexterity of the dancers, and their knowledge of the tango’s aesthetic history, is all but certain, the scene cuts to a wide, full-body reveal; it takes us only a moment to realize, after the shock of the long, microgenic faces, that we’ve been unknowingly watching the steps of individuals with Down syndrome.
One could argue that the scene’s structure “humanizes” the dancers by anonymising them, and, indeed, forcing us to first acknowledge their kinesthetic prowess nearly renders their disability irrelevant by triumphing an admirably product-over-process art ethos (to be sure, the implied question, “Does their ailment matter?,” is a worthwhile one). This segment, however, follows several other enlistments of special-needs performers by the grizzle-goatee’d Gieco—among them, the songwriter/guitarist/congenital hydrocephalus patient Alejandro Davio and limb-less harmonica player Pancho Chévez. By the time we reach the Compañia de Tango Danza AMAR, we aren’t simply marveling at the obstreperous talent on display, eagerly anticipating the next showcase of physical malfunction.
Withholding evidence of the dancers’ Down syndrome while we expectantly regard the stomping, lilting cadence of feet thus enables directors Gieco, Fernando Molnar, and Sebastián Schindel to provide a questionably manipulative payoff. It’s the first of several moments where we feel a busker’s rip cord being ostentatiously tugged to present the earnest but challenged cast of Mundo Alas in exploitatively “ta-da!” scenarios, rather than as confident symbols of obstacle transcendence.
Those other moments are interspersed across a bus-driven road show through the burnt-orange country, where the disabled artists are intermittently propped up on a professional proscenium to belt out and flail along to pseudo-pop tunes before throngs of Geico adorers. And the since the requisites for participation involve corporeal impairment rather than ability, the quality of performance varies dramatically; isn’t it a bit of an insult to the blind, bird-throated Carina Spina, owner of by far the group’s most formidable musical gift, to be harmonizing alongside the aforementioned Davio, who can scarcely carry a tune? (The shows are additionally aided by a non-disabled session band, implying Gieco’s unspoken awareness of, at the very least, the group’s embarrassingly rough-hewn edges.)
Other aspects of the Mundo Alas stage program are even more baffling: For example, painters Antonella Semaán and Carlos Sosa use their toes to deftly sketch and ink subpar landscapes that cannot even be observed by the audience beneath them. In a curious philosophical reversal of the film’s AMAR Compañia profile, what’s considered significant, and presumably life affirming, is that these triplegic patients can lift a paintbrush at all, regardless of what the outcome might be.
These ethical blunders are rendered even further irritating by the movie’s uncommonly professional production. The high-definition cameras capture consistently piquant Argentine sunsets and, as with the best “tour” documentaries (e.g. Year of the Horse), the narrative ambles along a casually episodic trajectory, toe-dipping into intriguing aspects of the performers’ backstories and resisting the urge to nervously build to a big make-or-break concert climax. But despite the incisive biographical detail, too few of the participants truly seem worthy of such treatment, a fact that irks us every time Davio picks up an acoustic guitar and Gieco smiles on at the strained half-beauty as both benefactor and, by the film’s close, reluctant co-songwriter.
Despite its intentions, Mundo Alas illustrates that to applaud the disabled for mediocrity is not only to condescend to them, but to abusively corner their identities within the social implications of their medical conditions alone. Even Tod Browning’s Freaks may have been more humanistically sympathetic to its cast.