Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mainstream/Mexican CASI DIVAS arrives: Lots of fun -- and even a little provocation

After recently viewing some of Mexico's independent cinema -- films from Fernando Eibmcke and Gerardo Naranjo that have made their mark at international fests -- TrustMovies found himself sitting in the middle of the NYC's Clearview Chelsea Cinema last Tuesday evening, watching a very mainstream Mexican movie. And enjoying it. Rather a lot. CASI DIVAS is the name,

and the writer/
director Issa López (shown behind the camera, at right) certainly knows her way around story and filmmaking.

A major hit in its home country, the movie tells the old tale of the search for a new actress who will replace the current (and slightly-over-the-hill) star of a famous telenovela when the upcoming movie version is filmed. From the outset we pretty much know who will become the finalists, since the movie begins by giving us the back-story of all four young ladies. We also meet the aging diva and her over-sexed producer/lothario, both of whom -- funny, attractive and full of dirty tricks -- supply a lot of the movie's steam.

There appears to be nothing much new here except, for American audiences, the south-of-the-border locations, so we settle back, expecting an old-
fashioned, if campy, kind of fun. Initially, that's what we seem to be getting, served up in relatively sprightly fashion. Then slowly, just a bit, things deepen. Class and territory issues come to the fore: darker skin played off against lighter, illiteracy, pover-
ty, style or the lack of it. Sure, we've seen this kind of cinematic paella before, but here, with the details so different and specific (a wristwatch suddenly takes on surprising symbolic meaning), small but consistent zaps of frisson are added to the mix.

Unlike many main-
stream films, Casi Divas gets better as it goes along; its charac-
ters garner more depth, particularly the three "underdogs," Francisca (Maya Zapata, shown above), Catalina (Diana Garcia, shown at right) and Yesenia (Daniela Schmidt). The rich white girl, Ximena, is too easy a villain, but the actress, Ana Layesvska (below), brings steely strength and even a little sympathy to the role). Ms Zapata is sweetness and grace incarnate, but the Misses Garcia and Schmidt steal the show. The beautiful Ms. Garcia, who was seen only last week as one of the leads in Naranjo's Drama/Mex via the FSLC, here plays a girl from Juarez -- that town where so many women have gone missing, the fact of which plays into the movie in a major way. What writer/
director López is able to do with this seems stronger to me than either of the two "thriller" films I've seen on this same subject.

And Ms Schmidt (seen below)? Whew: Racy, low-end and driven (nearly to distraction), a little over halfway through the film she reveals a certain something that takes the movie into new territory, and then slowly begins to center it. I wager this character has done more to help her cause than almost any other of her type I can recall on screen -- and she provides a well-
earned kick in the teeth to Latin machismo. One choice moment (involving her boyfriend, her super-straight brother and the sudden closing of the legs) is as funny and pointed as anything seen in the current Humpday. Also in the cast are Adrian Alonso (the terrific kid from La Misma Luna), and Patricia Llaca and Julio Bracho, who are excellent as the feuding diva and divo.

Casi Divas -- from Maya Releasing and targeted, of course, to the Hispanic market -- opens Friday, August 21, in a limited run in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. Here in NYC, you can see it at the Village East Cinemas and the Empire 25 Cinemas.

Though the film is bound to be big with Spanish-speaking audiences, I hope word-of-mouth among non-Hispanics will bring that audience in, as well, even if they must read subtitles. And if they don't catch Casi Divas now, in its theatrical run, then certainly later, once the movie arrives on DVD.

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