Road to Fame (2008)

[original title: Casi Divas]



I came across this film by coincidence. An arts&culture book store in a city I infrequently travel to had to close down {{note to self: people don’t read books any more}}, and I snapped up a number of books and DVDs for cheap.

I had never heard of Road to Fame before, and the cover as well as the description on the back of the DVD case made me believe that this was simply a mainstream comedy. And it is, in a way, mainstream, stylistically at least, but it is so much more than that. Road to Fame is a comedy-drama that pokes fun at casting shows, Mexican telenovelas, and “divas”, while highlighting a number of social issues at the same time.



The producer of a successful telenovela wants to adapt it for the big screen, and in order to achieve a maximum of publicity he decides to do a huge televised casting show where girls from all over the country can audition for the role of the leading lady.
A number of young girls from different parts of the country and widely differing backgrounds decide to try their luck in that casting process. Their individual hopes, dreams, and motivations reflect their different social environments. Their different socialisation and temperament aside, they all are very excited to do the show.
Far less thrilled about the whole affair is Eva, the actress who is playing the lead character on the soap and has no intention of stepping aside and letting some girl from the street take over her role. She is a larger-than-life diva who in a rage could give Joan Crawford a run for her money. The producers clearly think that at 35 she is too old to play the young naive lead, but Eva is having none of it. In her fury, she is waging a destructive clandestine war against her on-again-off-again lover, Alejandro, the show-runner of the telenovela.
The four girls at the centre of this film (Ximena, Yesenia, Catalina, and Francisca) come from different backgrounds, lead different lives, and have vastly different experiences and attitudes. This is in itself interesting, as it shows the diversity of Mexico, but also hints at a lack of common ground, a lack of cohesion. As one character in the film says: the official name of the country is “Estados Unidos Mexicanos”, but it does not feel that way.
Ximena is a spoiled, rich girl from an “old family” in Guadalajara, while Yesenia is a hairdresser from Nezahualcóyotl, just outside Mexico City. Living in cramped accommodations with her family, including a number of unruly brothers, Yesenia has a developed into a tough girl who does not shy away from a fight. Although Yesenia’s attitude is of a slightly different nature than that of Ximena, these two are the contestants with the biggest diva-affectations.
Catalina also is a tough girl, but has become “hard” through a different set of circumstances. She is a poor factory worker from Juárez in Chihuahua state, a crime-ridden district where girls are frequently abducted and end up dead. Francisca, on the other hand, comes from a rather idyllic place, a remote village somewhere in Oaxaca state. She is a modest and friendly country girl; but she is an “Indian”, something a few of the people she meets are keen to remind her of.
These girls all share the dream of winning the casting contest, but since their lives have very little in common, this dream is in each case motivated by a different set of hopes, stemming from their individual foibles, traumas and insecurities.



It is this last element that makes these stories so touching and memorable. And although we only get glimpses into the lives of these girls, the film manages to firmly ground them in that background so it has believable characters to work with.


Over the course of the film a number of social issues are touched on: gender identity, racism, sexism, ageism, machismo, crimes against women – but also the shallowness of the entertainment industry. And as the contest progresses and the field of contestants starts to dwindle down, the girls have to ask themselves how far they are willing to go in order to succeed.


Structurally, the film jumps from scene to scene as it tries to cover the exploits of the four young hopefuls who are the focus of this story. And in a way the story-line of Eva and Alejandro serves as a backbone, a common ground the narrative returns to from time to time. The narrative structure makes the film feel a bit meandering, but it is never boring, not even for a minute. Apart from writer/director Issa Lopéz I guess the praise for that should also go to editor Jorge García (who also edited The Thin Yellow Line). There is only one small, unavoidable pacing issue that appears when the casting contest nears its climax. Such shows invariably drag out the finale as long as possible; and as this has to be imitated in the film as well, the film does slow down a bit too much at that point.



The film has the benefit of a hugely talented cast, and the director got the very best out of them. Ana Layevska (Ximena), Daniela Schmidt (Yesenia), Diana García (Catalina), and Maya Zapata (Francisca) all give outstanding performances. The main cast is completed by Julio Bracho, who makes a great cynical producer as Alejandro, and Patricia Llaca (Eva), who is breath-takingly good at playing the diva from hell.

The great acting achievements include most of the minor supporting roles as well, for example Tenoch Huerta as Francisca’s fellow villager Domingo.


So, generally speaking, almost everything in this film has gone right: casting, writing, directing, editing – and you can add to that the fact that the diverting soundtrack has been created by no other than Hans Zimmer. The strongly positive impression I have of this film is also down to the fact that there is a number of little details that the film gets exactly right – perfectly timed moments, looks, and so on.



As I said, this film may be more mainstream and far less “art-house” than many other films I reviewed on this blog, and therefore very accessible and suitable for a wide range of audiences. So I am a bit surprised that it is not better known outside Mexico. While women might find the film as a whole more interesting and amusing than men, I can still strongly recommend this film to everyone.

Rating: 8.0 to 8.5 out of 10

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