I will be very up front about this: I know almost nothing about dance. I like musicals of pretty much every era of film, though, so I like watching people dancing, but I have no real conception of dance as an art form. I feel like that makes me fairly perfect to offer some thoughts on Pina, as I imagine nearly anyone who is interested but needs some convincing probably also has a very limited background in dance.
Pina is the story of Pina Bausch, a German dancer who rose to prominence in the 1970s as one of the landmark performers and choreographers in her field. Or, at least, it would have been, but shortly before Wim Wenders was to begin his documentary about Pina Bausch she was diagnosed with a cancer that rapidly killed her. Wenders was going to cancel the production, but the collaborators and students of Pina instead requested they go ahead anyway, and change the direction of the movie. And thus, Pina was born.
Pina is barely a documentary, then, in the sense that it tells almost no story. The movie instead is composed of various performances of the work both of Pina and of her students done in tribute to her, both on the stage and out in the world, segueing one into the other without much in the way of formal rhyme or reason. In between, those people she worked with offer up a thought, or a memory, or a final message to their friend and teacher. Often these are played as voiceover on the face of whoever is speaking simply looking into the camera, a fitting way of emoting for people who express entirely through physicality. Some of them say nothing at all, only looking and reacting into the camera.
The performances are all in a modern style, fairly informal and wrought with emotion and physical exertion, sometimes absurd and sometimes frightening and sometimes very sad. As I said earlier, I’m not even vaguely informed, so I cannot speak to the quality of any of the work, but I don’t feel like that particularly matters. What Pina presents is people performing their craft, packaged in a way it never quite would be on stage, for us to experience and reflect on and enjoy. I feel like subjective opinions about ‘quality’ at that point fall at the wayside due to the power of the larger picture.
Pina is the kind of tribute that only artists would offer to another artist. It is painters of movement and temporary grace, trying to translate their craft into another medium where it will live on and can be shared with others. It’s through their performances, their movements and constructions and emotions, that they both honor and say goodbye to someone who touched three generations of dancers. In one of the later sequences, all three generations take up the same roles, cutting between the youngest and the oldest and those in-between, throwing out any sense of time or structure for the truth that through all of her life, the art remained unchanged and singularly worthy.
Thus I struggle to really offer what would pass for criticism. This is a very personal film, and I feel it would be rude in the extreme to try to box it into prior conceptions of what a movie should or shouldn’t be. Besides, it is at its heart barely a movie, a performance piece that serves to instruct through doing more than telling. In that way, I can’t outright recommend it to anyone, though I found it very beautiful and touching. I would recommend anyone watch the trailer, and decide if that interests them. The movie is not much different than that, what you’re being sold is exactly what you’re getting. But it’s barely for audiences, shared only as tribute, and I feel like that makes it somewhat removed from the normal concerns of this type of film.
I will speak, however, to the 3D. As one might expect, the 3D in Pina is truly amazing, providing a depth and reality to the spaces on screen and the bodies that inhabit them that is absolutely additive to the quality of the film. This is only the third film I’ve seen that I would say argues positively for the worth of 3D past its use as a gimmick, but it might indeed be the strongest. I can’t imagine the performances being shown working nearly as well without the sense of depth, the necessary translation between the immediacy and reality of live performance on stage and the demands of the package of the cinema. So if you have any interest in seeing it, go see it now while you can still see it presented properly.