Saturday, November 12, 2011

DZI CROQUETTES: Issa's & Alvarez's great, barrier-busting doc from Brazil

What a pleasure, what a challenge, what a cause for celebration is the Brazilian documentary that opens this coming week in New York (and opened this past Friday in Los Angeles). DZI CROQUETTES is its name -- and also the name of the infamous group of 13 performers that set its home country afire in the late 1960s and 70s and then did the same across Europe. The Croquettes were about to visit the USA, when -- well, that's part of the amazing story told with love and affection, melancholy, joy and insight by filmmakers Tatiana Issa and Raphael Alvarez (shown below, with Ms Issa on the left).

The Brazil at this time of the formation of DZI Croquettes was under a severe military dictatorship (below) in which freedom of expression -- of all kinds except tow-the-line obeisance -- was demanded and expected. That this peculiar, bent-on-provocation theater group should have come into being at all is strange enough. That it created such a popular stir that the government actually, if haltingly, allowed it to perform is amazing. Finally, when hardly an extant word remained about the group, that these two young filmmakers were able to amass such a wonderful array of archival photos and film and then get interviews from so many of the group's remaining performers and others in Brazil's artistic community is a major accomplishment.

Ms Issa's father was a set designer for the group, and so she grew up within it. (Clearly, the film was for her a labor of love and remembrance, and when, at the end, she tells us about her father and "where he went," you'll not, I think, be able to suppress the sudden surge of deep feeling her words inspire.) It's understan-dable why the documentary has received more than 20 interna-tional awards to become the most honored movie in Brazil's history.

That this group was god-mothered by performers as unique and different as Liza Minnelli (that's she, at center, right, with seven of the performers) and Josephine Baker should give you a clue how special were these guys and perhaps how specialized were their audiences. The Croquettes existed to break barriers and cross boundaries of all kinds, particularly those to do with the sexual or expected. What they achieved -- via a combination of theater, dance and satire about politics, gender, sex and so much more -- and at a time when literally nothing else like this had come along is indeed amazing, shocking even to those of us who lived through this period.

One of the groups two leaders was New York chorus boy Lennie Dale (shown below), who had performed with Bob Fosse (and is such a unique and talented dancer that you may find yourself wondering if Fosse did not get some of his signature moves from this man). The other was an artist who was also something of an intellect named Wagner Ribeiro (no, not the current sports agent -- but try to find anything on the older Wagner web-wise and you'll understand what a challenge these filmmakers were up against). Together these two, and the little troupe they formed, made beautiful, scary, barrier-crashing music/theater/dance.

Issa and Alvarez move their movie speedily along. You'll barely have time to catch your breath between meeting all the performers and discovering what each was best known for. Interviewees includes everyone from Minnelli to director/choreographer Ron Lewis and some of the cream of Brazil's performing stable. The most interesting stuff comes from the remaining "living" Croquettes who help fill in the blanks on what happened, when and why.

That the Croquettes were ahead of their time (and ahead of the rest of the world) is I think beyond dispute. What they gave us was liberation that transcends the merely gay. Said to be inspired by San Francisco's The Cockettes, these Croquettes and their work strike me as much more intelligent and wide-ranging. And the movie, while about them, also shows enough of them in action to serve as thrilling, ground-breaking entertainment of its own.

While the audience for this film would appear to be GLBT, that barely cracks the surface. All artists (who aspire to the term) should take a gander at these guys and their "art," if only to discover how liberating, hilarious, moving and intelligent, performance art can be.

DZI Croquettes, from TRIA Productions, opened Friday, November 11, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Sunset 5, and will open this coming Friday, November 18, in New York City at the IFC Center.

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