Casi Divas -- Film Review

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Light Mexican comedies like "Casi Divas" (which translates as "Almost Divas") rarely make it across the border. But Maya Entertainment, a Latino-owned American entertainment company, is opening the film in the three biggest Latino markets: Los Angeles, New York and Miami. The film, released in Mexico last year, is an enjoyable spoof of Mexican soap operas and the entertainment business in general. The film doesn't ask to be taken seriously, but if you absolutely insist, there is pointed commentary about the deep divisions within that society over skin color, gender politics and social backgrounds.

Even a small boxoffice success in el norte might ensure further importation of Mexican films beyond those made or sponsored by that country's holy trinity of Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron.

The film, the second produced by Columbia Pictures Producciones Mexico, is somewhat frenetic in its execution and acting, but by the standards of, say, Bollywood, it is positively calm and collected. Written and directed by Issa Lopez, the film focuses mostly on young women and most certainly on the steely nerve and fierce ambition they need to climb any ladder of success in Mexico.

The situation centers on a producer's desire to turn a long-running telenovela into a movie, one that will not feature its star, Eva Gallardo (Patricia llaca). Eva is too difficult and too old -- meaning past 30 -- to play the young, innocent heroine. So the producer (Julio Bracho) holds a national TV audition before celebrity judges -- what on earth does this remind you of? -- that attracts 3,000 girls and a huge viewership that can phone in votes. (What, no Internet voting?)

Four contestants provide a glimpse into disparate geographic and cultural segments of Mexican society. These verge close to stereotypes, but four vivacious actresses stamp these roles with enough personality that one can overlook those shortcomings.

Francisca (Maya Zapata) is rural, poor and Indian. Ximena (Ana Layevska) is white, urban and rich. Yesenia (Daniela Schmidt) is a Mexico City local, exotic, determined and flamboyant. Catallina (Diana Garcia) is a tough cookie from Ciudad Juarez, where girls like her have been disappearing for years. The latter tragedy represents a serious note for a comedy, but Lopez gets away with this by folding it into story lines that deal with how men treat women in her society.

The contest and the women's friendships and antagonisms give Lopez plenty of room to operate: The film contains flirtations, confrontations, fights, one complete makeover and one big surprise, Oh, and by the way, Eva is not about to go gently into that good night. She fights back for her role against the producer, who is her often-unfaithful lover.

The movie is fun and colorful, mixing comedy and melodrama into a piece that subtly wonders about a country transfixed by TV fantasies while corruption and a drug war tear the society apart. No, Lopez never asks that question; it's just implicit in every satirical jab.

Shot in HD, "Divas" has suitable grit to go with the swings among rural poverty, glamorous penthouses and a studio lot. American import Hans Zimmer provides a score that would be too busy for an American film but doesn't feel incongruous here.

Opens: August 21 (Maya Entertainment)
Production companies: Columbia Pictures Producciones Mexico
Cast: Patricia Llaca, Julio Bracho, Maya Zapata, Ana Layeska, Diana Garcia, Daniela Schmidt
Director/screenwriter: Issa Lopez
Producer: Luz Maria Rojas
Executive producer: Ignacio Darnaude
Director of photography: Carlos Aguiler
Production designer: Carlos Herrera
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Bertha Romero
Editor: Jorge Garcia
Rated PG-13, 107 minutes
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