Drag Icons of Brazil
The Divine Divas are icons of the first generation of Brazilian transvestite artists in the 1960’s. One of the first places that hosted men dressed as women was the Rival Theatre that was run by Américo Leal, grandfather of this film’s director, Leandra Leal. We see the intimacy, the talent and the stories of a generation that revolutionized the sexual behavior and defied the morality of a time.
Eight artists have come together for a 50th anniversary reunion and their stories are as diverse and different as their costumes. The documentary is greatly influenced by the experiences of the filmmaker. Leandra Leal practically grew up at the theater; her grandfather, owned it and presented that first showcase for transvestite performers. Her mother, Angela Leal, brought her to the theater from an early age, and so she was very influenced by the warm and loving environment she found there. Because her mother was an actress, it was entirely natural for Leandra to also become an actress, which she did in her early teens and she was widely acclaimed in her country.
With that kind of background, it’s no surprise that “Divine Divas” is a celebration than an expose of some sort. Because of her friendly relationships with the performers, they open up to Leandra right away. They remember how it once was with pride just as other entertainers would do. We become immediately aware of the Divas’ musical talents and stage presence as we ware when they speak the many unique challenges they faced over the years. They tell it like it is, and describe how difficult it was for them individually in their younger years. Some struggled with their own identities at a time and in a culture that looked down on anything or anyone out of the ordinary and expected.
The film revolves around the preparations for the reunion and this makes it easy for the performers to talk about their experiences over the decades. Each individual is different, of course therefore giving us a broad view of identity issues is related. We also get an overview of the culture of Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s. Through archival footage and photos we see what life was like for the performers. Occasionally the footage is quite revealing, but even when private parts are exposed briefly, the spirit remains accepting and matter of fact. The times have changed yet the artists who are now older have not really changed. They are still strong, resilient and proud. And they can still sing, dance, entertain audiences and act as examples to younger performers.
As far back as she can remember, Leandra Leal was aware of the transvestite artists of Rio de Janeiro’s Rival Theater. It was one of the first clubs to openly feature men dressed as women. This Leal’s first directorial effort and even though the film is at times uneven, it pays tribute to eight of these performers as they reunite at the venue for a 50th anniversary performance.
The opening shot is gorgeous with the camera focusing closely on one of the drag performers as she prepares to go onstage at the Rival. Her glitter glows and her lipstick and false eyelashes give her face an abstract impressionism. Her hands are wrinkled hands but they hold a great deal of history and we see pleasure and pain.
We see talking-head interviews, onstage performances from the 50th anniversary show and archival footage (mostly of the divas in their younger days) and through these we get to know the performers. They have been all over the world and they challenged the morals of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1967 and 1985. Leal views 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 than anything else. Whenever there is a focus on the Rival as a kind of radical oasis, the film comes alive.