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Practicing Spanish with Movies: A Review of Casi Divas

Everyone’s heard a story at some point in their life about a person who taught themselves to speak [insert foreign language here] by watching lots of television and movies in their target language. Especially for people learning American English, Hollywood productions and popular TV series can provide a window into American social and linguistic norms and practices that textbooks often can’t, even if it is a somewhat distorting window. We all know that watching The Help or Bridesmaids or Friends doesn’t provide the viewer with a flawless picture of how people live and communicate in America, now or in the past, but even exaggerated versions of American life on screen can provide insights into the things we as a country value and how we interact with one another. All in all, I am a strong believer that the benefits of watching movies far outweigh any risks that might be involved  (like accidentally picking up Sylvester Stallone’s weird slur/drawl after watching Rambo one too many times or thinking that “E.T. phone home” is an appropriate, colloquial way to request use of a telephone).

I watch Spanish-language movies as often as I can. While the Netflix Watch Instantly selection in this genre is quite disappointing, it still gives me instant access to way more movies than I had available to me before. Subtitles, for better or for worse, are turned on, with no option to be turned off. I’ve found that the DVD options they offer are much more complete, but I like my instant gratification so I’m sticking with the online rentals for the time being.
One movie that I discovered through the service was a Mexican comedy called Casi Divas (Almost Divas). The plot (which at times takes on a vague-mockumentary-ish feel that I wish they had pursued further) centers around a nationwide casting call for a new movie based on a fictional telenovela called Maria Enamorada. With the telenovela’s leading lady growing too old to play the part in the movie (and not happy about it at all), the studio holds an open American Idol-style casting call, complete with acting competitions and telephone voting to find the new Maria. The movie follows four hopeful contestants from different parts of Mexico and very different walks of life as they compete for the starring role.

This is not the type of movie I normally watch, but I have to confess, I love it. It’s in large part a very silly comedy, but there are very serious undertones that address a number of social issues of importance in modern Mexico.

A rich contestant from Guadalajara struggles with her self-image and relies on her wealthy family to get her through the competition, another from Oaxaca is discriminated against because of her race (she is a Zapoteca Indian), another has a secret that could eliminate her from the competition (revealed halfway through the film), and one contestant from Ciudad Juárez hopes to use the fame she’d acquire by winning the competition to escape the murderous city she’s grown up in, and the numerous disappearances and killings that have plagued the city’s women for years. I do think the film glazes over many of these issues, but their mere presence as plot elements keeps the movie from being too fluffy and adds a little heart and soul to an otherwise lighthearted story line.

This is a bit of a screwball comedy, a bit stereotypical,  and it definitely focuses on the ladies (the male characters are not necessarily painted in the most flattering light), but overall I would highly recommend it. I don’t think it got the best reviews overall, but honestly, it’s enjoyable. If you want to read some more critical perspectives, NPR and The Los Angeles Times both gave it fairly favorable, though by no means rave reviews.

Language-wise, there is a lot of fast talking, but there was clearly effort put into differentiating the characters’ different personal styles, and I think that comes through in a number of very distinctive speaking styles that are nice to see side by side. I’m not used to all the Mexican colloquialisms that appear throughout the film, but overall I think it’s a great vehicle for learning some new vocab and grammatical structures more commonly used south of the border.

Don’t have Netflix? You can also get the DVD from Walmart for $5.

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