SXSW Film Review: Divine Divas (Brazil, 2017) is both a beautiful preservation and an accomplished slice of filmmaking

More a celebration of drag culture than a heavy-handed expose, Divine Divas proves a fascinating watch as it allows a peak behind the curtains of one of Brazil’s first establishments to showcase men dressed as women.

In 1960’s Rio de Janeiro, the Rival Theatre – under the forward thinking of Americo Leal – was one of the first venues to openly feature transvestite performers, and it is filmmaker Leandra Leal‘s personal connection to the titular divas that serves the film its greatest justice as it comes off as nothing less than a love letter to a group of women who dared to be themselves in a time when it was near-unnatural to do so.

At once a lesson in personal history and cultural exploration, Divine Divas continually surprises throughout as its focus on this specific group of elderly performers gives way for some tender reminiscence of days gone by, all the while maintaining a present-day status as they prepare for a 50th year reunion show; the catty disagreements they have over a group performance of “New York, New York” counterbalances the emotional depth experienced in their backstories, including (but not limited to) one of the performers – Jane di Castro – breaking down on stage in devotion to her husband and that their 46-year long partnership has only just earned recognition in the last year.

As some of the Rival girls appear ready to hang up their sequinned attire for good, while others still crave the spotlight (“the true artist dies onstage” as one insists), Divine Divas never wavers in showcasing respect for this brave form of expression.  And as much as the film highlights the brutal reality some of these women faced – family rejection, public harassment, near-starvation between gigs – Leal’s film is, for the most part, a joyous event.

Likely to serve as a humbling reminder to today’s queer entertainers of the struggles their forebears tackled, as well as introducing a general audience to a slew of fierce performers they should be familiar with, Divine Divas is both a beautiful preservation and an accomplished slice of filmmaking.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Divine Divas had its international premiere at SXSW last month.