'Divine Divas': Film Review | SXSW 2017

Courtesy of SXSW
Prima donnas par excellence headline an uneven doc.

This heartfelt yet patchy Brazilian documentary profiles a revolutionary drag queen octet.

As far back as she can remember, Brazilian actress Leandra Leal was aware of the transvestite artists of Rio de Janeiro's Rival theater, an establishment originally run by her grandfather. It was one of the first clubs to openly feature men dressed as women. And Leal's first directorial effort, the adoring if aesthetically uneven documentary Divine Divas, pays tribute to eight of these performers as they reunite at the venue for a 50th anniversary performance.

The opening shot is a stunner, the camera pushing in extra close on one of the drag performers as she prepares to go onstage at the Rival. Her glitter gives off an otherworldly glow. Her lipstick and false eyelashes lend an abstract impression of her face, which is cloaked in shadow. And her wrinkled hands, which she gently but insistently rub together, seem suffused with history, in all its pleasure and pain. This is a loaded, lovely image, and one wishes Leal and her cinematographer, David Pacheco, more consistently approached this story with a similar visual dexterity.

As is, the film mostly adheres to the base standards of nonfiction cinema, resulting in a prosaic mix of talking-head interviews, onstage performances from the 50th anniversary show and archival footage (mostly of the divas in their younger days) that infrequently gets across the poetry of the eight artists' efforts. These are trans performers who traveled the world and challenged the regressive morals of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1967 and 1985. Yet Leal tends to view her subjects in a present-tense vacuum, more concerned with the behind-the-scenes intricacies of their reunion show and the cattiness of some of the rehearsals (disagreements, for example, over the choreography for a group performance of "New York, New York") than anything else. It's a reality TV approach to a subject that begs for more nuance and a much stronger historical framework.

Divine Divas is best whenever it focuses on the Rival as a kind of radical oasis. There's a long take early on that follows several of the transvestite artists as they walk through the city streets, then tracks behind them as they enter the venue, descend to its dressing rooms and finally end up onstage. It's the Copacabana shot from Goodfellas brilliantly transposed to another milieu, and it gives a potent sense of how revolutionary this subculture could and can be — it feels as if we're being led, Pied Piper style, between two worlds that exist tenuously side by side. And despite its persistent loginess, the film concludes on an extremely affecting note as one of the divas has a very "This … is Mrs. Norman Maine!" moment, defiantly ripping off her wig in front of the Rival crowd, then demanding and wrenchingly displaying a dignity that's been hard-fought and hard-earned.   

Production company: Daza Filmes
With: Rogéria, Jane di Castro, Divina Valéria, Eloina dos Leopardos, Camille k, Brigite de Buzios, Fujika de Holliday, Marquesa

Director: Leandra Leal
Screenwriters: Carol Benjamin, Leandra Leal, Lucas Paraizo, Natara Ney
Producers: Carol Benjamin, Leandra Leal, Natara Ney, Rita Toledo
Associate producers: Bianca Villar, Fernando Fraiha, Karen Castanho
Executive producer: Carol Benjamin

Cinematographer: David Pacheco
Editor: Natara Ney
Sound designer: Vinicius Leal
Music: Plinio Profeta
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Feature, Global)

Portuguese with English subtitles

109 minutes