By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 22, 2011 at 1:14PM
The selling point of Wim Wenders' documentary "Pina" is twofold. It's an intriguing opportunity to see another New German Cinema legend explore the possibilities of 3-D technology in nonfiction, close on the heels of Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." And beyond any cinematic trickery, Wenders' subject speaks for itself. Setting his sights on the vibrant and marvelously expressionistic dance movements of the late Pina Bausch, Wenders combines reminiscences of the experimental choreographer (who died in late 2009) with vivid examples of her work. More than anything else, the movie is a better Pima primer than any Wikipedia page could provide.
"There are situations that leave you utterly speechless," Bausch says in an early voiceover, as dancers from her Tanztheater Wuppertal company twirl through dirt with tribal intensity. "All you can do is hint at things." In Bausch performances, however, hints aren't equatable with subtlety. Her extraordinary takes on the compositions of Jun Mikayke and others find dancers rendering their physicality as emotional abstraction--embracing, arguing and seducing without saying a word. You could place a static camera in front of these people and they would still radiate with singular brilliance.
But the 3-D, of course, makes the intensity all the more intense. Wenders eschews complex maneuvers and lets the effect beef up the atmosphere and dimensionality of the dancers' motions. Scenes featuring the entire company benefit from the effect's mesmerizing quality as much as a tense, intimate piece involving two dancers in a seemingly eternal cycle of caressing and breaking apart.
For reasons solely related to the nature of the art, the use of 3-D in "Pina" unquestionably features the best application of the effect this year, ahead of substantial attempts by both Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. However, Wenders' stylistic decisions aren't on par with his technical ones.
At both the Toronto and New York Film Festivals this year, "Pina" wasn't the only dance-centered documentary from a major auteur filmmaker; Frederick Wiseman's superior "Crazy Horse," a vérité look at the Paris cabaret, luxuriates in the club's celebration of sensuality while using backroom chatter to underscore the process behind the performance. It connects the dots but never dominates Wiseman's focus.
By contrast, whenever Wenders cuts away from a dance to include reminiscences of Pina ("She had the most extraordinary eyes!"), the movie suffers. The choreographer's untimely death during early production of the documentary infuses its narrative structure and suggests a celebratory wake. The dance community may appreciate that, but it distracts from the work.
As a result, "Pina" is inferior to another dance-centered production from two much younger filmmakers: Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes' "NY Export: Opus Jazz," a phenomenal treatment of Jerome Robbins' 1958 ballet shot throughout New York City. While the setting adds fresh context to the ballet, it also works in congress with the movements rather than functioning as padding to material that doesn't need it.
"Pina" is a beautiful, heartfelt ode and a delicious feast for the eyes, but not an essential work of art on its own terms. Wenders shows the strengths of the work but never arrives at a greater understanding of it. I've seen the title written as "Pina" and "PINA," the latter an apparent attempt to overstate the larger-than-life quality of the choreography. Despite the grandiose intentions, the movie deserves the lower-case treatment.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sundance Selects picked up "Pina" after its strong reception in Berlin earlier this year and it continued to find a healthy response at other festivals. It may not make the cut for awards season (although it's on two shortlists, for documentary and foreign film), but it inhabits a niche that moves beyond the cinephile community and should help it perform well in limited release when it opens on Friday.