Proof that mediocrity need not always be familiar: Rashevski’s Tango somehow feels like just another garrulous, episodic dramedy about a multicultural European family coping with awkward generational transitions and forsaken Jewish heritage until one strains to recall other entries in such an esoteric genre. At the start of the film, the Rashevski matriarch, Rosa (Laurence Masliah), quietly passes away, provoking introspective meditation from her brother-in-law, Doffo (Natan Cogan as a crotchety, hesitant familial head), and a variety of descendents, most of whom guiltily grapple with their largely unacknowledged Semitism for the first time in years. But rather than offering a usefully alternative interpretation of Jewish identity—is it in one’s blood, or in one’s soul, or purely in one’s mind?—or simply concentrating on the nontraditional way in which the Rashevski clan occasionally raises a glass to its Judaic roots, the film flippantly follows the friction caused selectively practicing ritual.
There’s nothing inherently insipid about ritual, of course (to most, the aesthetics make the religion), but writer-director Sam Garbarski has fixed collection of largely unfunny and un-profound ceremonial debates at his movie’s core. One middle-aged married couple hotly argues over whether the Jewish husband will be buried in an orthodox cemetery, thus alienating his corpse from his wife’s—the hollow histrionics are like a bottom-shelf outtake from Curb Your Enthusiasm. Another goy, Antoine (Hippolyte Girardot), falls in love with a young Rashevski female who refuses him sexually due to the mixed nature of the coupling until he learns the titular dance, an abstract heirloom passed down from the late Rosa. The tango itself is thus more of an insult than a metaphor—a method of seducing non-practicing Jewish women away from their mindlessly-held mating principles.
Out of all the recent cinematic explorations of post-war Semitism (cf. Perestroika, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg), Rashevski’s Tango might be the wispiest, but if so, the distinction is a photo-finish achievement. The intense difficulties of meaningfully portraying the complex alienation of the late 20th-century Jewish experience have yet to be properly surmounted; many directors simply depict confused minorities bearing significant emblems (yarmulkes, kosher wine, stars of David) without bothering to explore the purpose of investing character development in this particular brand of monotheism. In Tango, individuals without a Jewish mother need only desire and definitively choose to convert, and their conflicts resolve as superficially as the snipping of a foreskin. The one character that might have properly represented the religion’s potential nobility, Rosa’s ex-husband Shmouel, is given an unfortunate paucity of screen time in which to dangle his peyos. The details of his estrangement and conversion to Hasidic Judaism after the horror of “the camps” left him spiritually malnourished could have provided his family’s flightiness with a crucial devotional ballast; as it is, we feel as though we’ve spent an hour and a half with the wrong people.