Dance of the 41 is now showing on Netflix.
The year is 1901, and police officers in Mexico City are about to raid a secretive high-society event and arrest 42 men. Each man carted away that night held a prestigious place in society, but none more so than one Ignacio de la Torre, the son-in-law of the Mexican president Porfirio Díaz. The men’s crime was homosexuality, the underground club they helped create, a mecca for those seeking to live a secretive and free life away from the public gaze. However, the number charged, humiliated and imprisoned by the state would be 41, with Ignacio walking free, his name removed from the night’s events. But, what led to the police actions on that fateful night? And how did one night further damage LGBTQ+ rights and culture in early 20th Century Mexico for decades to come?
Let us start with the first of these questions, as it is here where Monika Revilla’s screenplay finds a clear voice. Revilla opts to explore life before the raid, saving the police actions for a shocking and powerful final act. And so, as we join Dance of the 41, Ignacio has just married Amada Díaz (Mabel Cadena), the president’s daughter, his appointment to Congress assured. However, Ignacio’s political ambitions hide a life lived on the edge of society – his marriage a sham that opens political doors that would otherwise remain closed.
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This soon becomes apparent to his wife as he avoids the house, spends long nights at work, and struggles to offer sexual attention. Here, director David Pablos paints a portrait of a gay man living two separate lives, one acceptable yet impossible and the other free yet full of risk. But, more importantly, he also shows us the devastating effect on his wife Amada, a woman who longs for his affection but feels betrayed by his absence and lack of touch. Amada’s story is just as crucial as Ignacio’s. Here her life is torn apart by a man who never loved her, a man who is aloof, ambitious and intensely secretive with both husband and wife, victims of a society where social rules and oppression control the individual’s place and purpose.
Meanwhile, as his marriage falls apart, Ignacio meets Evaristo (Emiliano Zurita), a handsome young lawyer. As their relationship blooms, Ignacio introduces Evaristo to an underground gay club hidden among the winding streets of Mexico City. Here within the select club’s candlelit rooms, liberation and sexual freedom reign supreme as men freely engage in sex without fear of persecution. For Ignacio and Evaristo, the club becomes their refuge from the world, but it’s not long before Evaristo’s love letters are discovered by Amada, her husband’s secret free at last.
Within the journey leading up to the fateful events of November 1901, Pablos and Revilla create a fascinating discussion on personal imprisonment, status and privilege. Here, Ignacio, Amada and Evaristo are all prisoners of society for differing reasons; for Ignacio and Evaristo, their cell is their sexuality, whereas, for Amada, her cage is forged by sexism and gender. However, the film’s runtime never allows for a deep and meaningful exploration of gender, sexuality and wealth. Meanwhile, Mexico’s political landscape never has the space to reflect the public policy and social control that helped oppression thrive. The result is a period drama with no historical hooks that help explain Mexico’s social landscape in 1901.
Equally, some may find the film’s end problematic, as social events post the arrests of the 41 are left hanging. This brings me back to the second of my opening questions: how did one night further damage LGBTQ+ rights and culture in early 20th Century Mexico for decades to come? Unfortunately, Dance of the 41 offers no exploration of impact or legacy. Here the fact that the raid would lead to further police action against gay men and lesbians is absent, alongside any reflections on the fate of the 41 arrested.
However, despite these flaws, Dance of the 41 is riveting, its stunning cinematography wrapping you in a world of luxury, secrets and lies. While at the same time, its performances capture the complexity of a world where private and public life exist in separate universes. The ability to live life unrestrained held in power, position, wealth and social acceptance.