Even in a competitive field, this moving Swedish entry to the Oscar’s International Feature awards race deserves a nomination.
The International Centerpiece at NewFest 2019 took me a few days to digest. Written and directed by Levan Akin, And Then We Danced is a deep-dive into a Georgian traditional dancer struggling with constant internal and external forces. It was a singular piece of art, a unique perspective from a subset of people that haven’t seen their stories on the screen.
The heart of the film is Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a young Georgian that comes from a poor family of dancers. He goes through life with tunnel vision, eternally focused on making the National Georgian Ensemble traveling group. He practices, spends time with his girlfriend and long-time partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili) and then works at a restaurant to help his family pay the bills.
The film paints a picture of tradition, within its dances, within its gender and sexual norms, and within its beliefs. It delves into Georgian culture by focusing on a single subject, Merab, who begins to feel many, many ways once a new dancer named Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) arrives into the group. Irakli is more talented than Merab, yet more carefree. Irakli is happier than Merab, and more assured in his capabilities.
As we watch the relationship between these two men grow, we root for them. We know what’s coming, yet are still surprised to see them get physical in this strict world that Akin has constructed based off real ideals.
Though it’s only about a 105-minute runtime, it’s a slow burn of a film, as we watch Merab’s life destruct piece by piece. First, his relationship with Mary crumbles once she realizes he’s been with Irakli. Second, his relationship with Irakli falters when he suddenly disappears only to return an engaged man. Third, he injures his foot and is put to the sidelines just in time for a big audition. Fourth, he loses his restaurant job due to his constantly drunk and constantly fighting older brother, leading to a wild night on the town. Merab’s world disintegrates due to his secret love, his persistence in dancing, and his attempts to correct it.
The story is fascinating and the acting is top-notch. Gelbakhiani breaks your heart at every turn with changing eyes and a soft, emotional face. His dancing is gorgeous as well, and he clearly is the conductor moving the film along, keeping it afloat during the lulls.
The story’s dichotomy of tradition versus relaxed acceptance gains importance the longer you sit on the film. You remember the film for its moments, not its overall plot points or story structure. The little moments of joy, of dancing, and of pain are burned into your brain.
And Then We Danced is the Swedish entry for the International Feature category at this year’s Oscars. It’s a hopeful entry during a crowded year for foreign film. And Then We Danced carries a weight shouldered by its lead actor though, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. If the Academy is looking for a stunning LGBTQ film with high-level acting and heartfelt storytelling, Akin’s film deserves a shot.
Based in Brooklyn, NY, Michael is a regular critic for Ready Steady Cut and also writes for Cinema Sentries, The Film Experience and Film Inquiry.