“Casi divas,” Mexican writer-director Issa Lopez’s gloriously flamboyant comedic extravaganza, fuses soap opera and “American Idol”-type competition, following four wildly different women vying for the star role in a feature filmization of a popular telenovela. Rather than settling for a lampoon of TV sudsers a la “Tootsie” or “Soapdish,” Lopez wittily stresses tensions between form and content. She invests her characters with emotions that register as all the deeper for being superficially presented via pop-culture cliches. “Divas,” which bows Aug. 21 in limited release, could evolve into that rarity, a Hispanic film with broad-based cross-cultural appeal.
The quartet of featured hopefuls dying to be cast in the title role of “Maria Enamorada” are slyly introduced through mini-biopics that mimic prepackaged backstories, yet Lopez artfully alters the generic style of each to reflect societal prejudice. Francisca (Maya Zapata), a Zapoteca Indian from the Oaxaca hinterlands, is framed in bucolic settings, her hick naivete emphasized by the awkward, jumpy editing. Political correctness will dictate her inclusion among the finalists, while racism will guarantee images of the Guadalajara high life — beauty treatments, tagalong maids, a guard dog and a fat-cat banker father.
Next, a field of crosses heralds Catalina (Diana Garcia), a militant factory worker in Cuidad Juarez, where women have been murdered with impunity for decades: She defiantly holds up posters of the dead and disappeared. Far from this straight-ahead, docu-style presentation is the splashy multimedia spectacle accompanying beauty parlor queen Yesenia (Daniela Schmidt), who headlines glitzy dance numbers with her flaming gay pals and has showbiz running through her veins.
The contestants’ dreams, family dramas, romances and social struggles — rendered as pastoral reverie, sitcom schtick or dread-filled horror — are intercut with the melodramatic antics of soap vet Eva Gallardo (Patricia Llaca), who has played Maria Enamorada on TV since the series’ inception. Furious at being supplanted in the movie version by a much younger unknown, Eva pulls every conceivable dirty trick to blackmail her ex-lover/producer Alejandro (Julio Bracho) into giving her the role. Alejandro, whose passion for his aging Galatea runs hot even as his sardonic appreciation of her histrionics runs cool, orchestrates the pageantry with consummate showmanship and surprising compassion. Pic’s generic ending, however, is overly pat.
Tech credits, including a score by Hans Zimmer, revel in colorful extravagance without tawdriness.