DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The movie "And Then We Danced" is set in the country of Georgia and sparked controversy there because of its depiction of a gay love story. Its opening last year was met with violent protests from the right and an outcry from conservative politicians and the Orthodox Church. The movie was directed by a 40-year-old Swedish filmmaker whose roots are in Georgia. It was submitted by Sweden for consideration for an Oscar for best international feature. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: If you're like me and know nothing about the art of traditional Georgian folk dance, "And Then We Danced" will provide an absorbing introduction. Set in the present day in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the movie stars a terrific first time actor named Levan Gelbakhiani as Merab, a 20-something junior member of the country's national dance ensemble. In the very first scene, Merab, a lean young man with a broad elfin grin, rehearses with his partner, Mary, and the camera follows their bodies as they move with impressive athleticism through a tightly choreographed routine.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AND THEN WE DANCED")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, non-English language spoken).
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHANG: But their instructor stops them and sternly criticizes Merab, saying his body is too soft when it should be as hard as a nail. Also, apparently, the dancer's eyes are much too playful; they should be gazing at the floor, so as to convey a kind of virginal innocence. After all, the instructor reminds them, there is no sex in Georgian dance. The movie will soon undermine that sentiment. But although Merab and Mary have been dance partners for years and are nominally a couple, Merab shows little romantic interest in her.
It soon becomes clear that he has eyes only for Irakli, a handsome young man played by Bachi Valishvili, who has recently joined their dance troupe. Irakli has a tall, muscular frame and turns out to be a more seasoned dancer than Merab. But the two men become friends. And as Irakli gives Merab helpful tips on his dancing technique, any sense of rivalry is soon eclipsed by the intensity of their shared attraction.
"And Then We Danced" is a fairly straightforward drama of first love and sexual awakening that may remind you of exquisite gay romances like "Call Me By Your Name" and the underseen English film "God's Own Country." But if the dramatic beats follow a familiar, even formulaic groove, it's still an engrossing story, thanks to the vividness and specificity of its Georgian setting and the beauty and vitality of the actors.
Levan Akin, a Swedish-born writer-director of Georgian background, is very good at capturing those moments when friendship becomes flirtation, even with a moment as tender as Irakli resting his head on Merab's shoulder as the two ride a bus together. The scenes of the two men rehearsing and, at one point, dancing together quickly take on an undeniable erotic charge. Merab and Irakli are forced to carry on their relationship in secret. It's during a weekend getaway with friends that the two have sex for the first time in a secluded area outdoors, away from prying eyes.
But Mary is hurt by Merab's neglect, and as she begins to realize what's going on, she feels both understandably betrayed and fearful for Merab's future. Homosexuality is legal, but homophobia is rampant in Georgia, where much of the population is Orthodox Christian. At one point, we hear background gossip about a male dancer who was caught sleeping with another man and sent to a monastery, where he was sexually assaulted by priests. That sad story is one of many that director Akin actually heard while researching his film, which he shot under difficult conditions and with tight security. The fact that the plot involved a gay love story had to be kept secret so as to avoid backlash or protests.
For all those challenges, "And Then We Danced" is seamlessly well-made, and its portrait of present-day Tbilisi conveys a striking sense of place. We get an intimate look at Merab's life at home and also at the challenges and limited opportunities that face many working-class youth. Family obligations force Irakli to shuttle between Tbilisi and Batumi, a city hundreds of miles away. Merab divides his time between dancing and working as a restaurant waiter. His parents were once dancers themselves but never managed to do it for a living. Even his ne'er-do-well older brother is a dancer, although he gets drunk every night and often misses practice the next morning.
Dance clearly exerts a powerful grip on the culture, and its unyielding standards of masculinity serve as an effective metaphor for a society mired in years of conservative tradition. But the best moments in "And Then We Danced" suggest that dance can also be liberating. There's a wonderful scene when the two young men are alone and a shirtless Merab dances for Irakli while "Honey," a popular song by the Swedish artist Robyn, fills the soundtrack. It's quite a moment - playful, seductive and quietly subversive. We're reminded that dance isn't just a rigid display of national pride, but perhaps the body's most intuitive expression of love and desire.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times.
On Monday's show, did President Trump really call his top military commanders a bunch of dopes and babies? We hear from two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters from The Washington Post, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, did more than 200 interviews for their inside account of the Trump administration, which is titled "A Very Stable Genius." Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEW ORLEANS JAZZ ORCHESTRA'S "SOUTHERN NIGHTS")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner. directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEW ORLEANS JAZZ ORCHESTRA'S "SOUTHERN NIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.