Sunday, September 05, 2021

Tango Shalom: From the Bologna Family

Tango is a little bit sad and a whole lot romantic. Rabbi Moshe Yehuda should be able to relate to it. He is still very much in love with his wife Raquel, but they have recently found themselves strapped for cash. A lucrative dance contest might offer a solution, but his faith prohibits him from touching a woman who is not his wife. Rabbi Yehuda seeks guidance from advisors inside and outside his faith in Gabriel Bologna’s Tango Shalom, which is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

It seems like everyone in Yehuda’s family needs money from him at the same time, but his teaching just isn’t bringing any in. He even ventures out from his Crown Heights neighborhood in search of paid employment, but to no avail. However, he stumbles across Viviana Nieves’ dance studio. Even though he never tangoed before, he has no trouble picking up the steps through the plate glass window. Nieves is so impressed she invites him in for an unconventional touchless lesson.

Can you believe Yehuda has such natural rhythm Nieves would invite him to be her partner when her ex-lover dumps her at the last minute? Why not? We buy into more outlandish gimmicks all the time, but it will be more difficult for the Orthodox Yehuda to accept it. When he seeks the counsel of the Grand Rebbe, his advice is more than a bit confusing, but it does not completely shut the door on the contest. As he wrestles with the issue, the Rabbi encounters the kindly Father Anthony, the strict but respectful Imam Ahmed, and the playful traveling Hindu mystic Ravi Prajna. Each has something helpful to tell Yehuda, but Prajna might have a solution to his dilemma (which is actually kind of clever).

Tango Shalom
is definitely a family affair, for both the Bolognas and Laniados. Gabriel Bologna directs a screenplay, co-written by his instantly recognizable late father Joseph (who co-stars as Father Anthony), with brothers Jos and Claudio Laniado, who portray Moshe Yehuda and his younger brother Rahamim. Plus, Joseph Bologna’s longtime wife (and writing partner) Renee Taylor portrays Moshe’s elderly mother, Deborah Yehuda, while Jos Laniado’s daughter Justine plays his on-screen daughter Shira. In addition, Gabriel Bologna’s wife Zizi composed some of the score. Even the longtime Bologna family friend Lanie Kazan (who co-starred with Joe in My Favorite Year) gets into the act as Leah Zlotkin, Rahamim’s prospective mother-in-law.

All the family connections might make the cynical among us suspicious, but in this case, it leads a good deal of on-screen chemistry. This is definitely a family- and faith-friendly movie that has malice towards none and charity for all. Yet, its spirit of inter-faith fellowship actually makes it rather distinctive in the current marketplace. The humor can be a bit goofy, in a G-rated kind of way, but the tango is legit, thanks to Karina Smirnoff (from
Dancing with the Stars). Of course, she is appropriately elegant on the dance floor, but she’s not bad in her dramatic scenes with her Orthodox partner. This might be a family film, but the tango choreography does not water-down the sultriness of the dance.

Yet, it is the earnest charm of Jos Laniado’s work as the dancing Rabbi and his romantic rapport with Judi Beecher’s appealingly down-to-earth Raquel Yehuda that really makes the film work. Laniado also has several scenes with the late great Bologna that are quite lovely. It is just great to see him on-screen again (his performance as King Kaiser in
My Favorite Year remains one of the funniest comedic supporting turns ever).

Tango Shalom is not immune to schtickiness or cliché, particularly the holy fool stereotype of Prajna. However, it is always well-intentioned and it features plenty of cool tango and klezmer music. The cast, particularly Beecher, Bologna, and Jos Laniado, give it all a lot of human depth. It is nice to see faith, family, and dance all treated with respect in film, as it is here. Recommended for fans of tango and films like My Big Fat Greek Weeding (which producer Joel Zwick helmed), Tango Shalom, is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire and Village East.