Miss Tacuarembó: A Cheeky '80s Festival of Spandex, Sacrilege, and Song

An absurd Uruguayan musical, a religious parody, an homage to the '80s, and a fractured fairy tale all rolled into one, Miss Tacuarembó is a campy, colorful, disjointed romp designed for Reagan-era kids who grew up with a healthy appreciation for irony.

In small-town, über-Catholic Uruguay in 1983, Natalia is an 8-year-old dreamer who believes her TV set was sent to her by Jesus. To the horror of the provincial townsfolk, she and her adorably effeminate playmate Carlos don shoulder-baring leopard print tops, leggings, and bright sweat bands as they rehearse their carefully choreographed dance routines in preparation for the what they consider to be an inevitable big break.

Their grand dreams are sparked by a glamorous star they discover while watching their favorite telenovela. The duo refuses to give up on their pursuit of stardom, even in the face of homophobic adults who forbid Carlos from dancing or playing with girls, and dire warnings from Candida, a witch-like holy roller who, among other offenses, brings a priest into Natalia's home to warn her mother that her child's television role model is a prostitute. (The character is actually a model.)

A flash forward to the 30-year-old Natalia (who often goes by the stage name "Cristal," taken from the lead character in the soap she was obsessed with as a child) reveals that she and Carlos have not made much progress in achieving their Hollywood dreams. Living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the reality show rejects work as dancing ten commandment slabs in Catholicism-themed Cristo Park, "the only theme park approved by the Vatican." Subsequent scenes skip forward and backward from Natalia's frustrating childhood, filled with taunts from more privileged children who laugh at the absurdity of her Hollywood hopes, Natalia's decade-early preparation for her participation in the Miss Tacuarembó beauty pageant, and very aggressive prayers -- more like threats -- to Jesus, requesting that He kill her oppressors.

The "dream theme" has been done before, but never quite this way. The movie spills over with energetic scenes, often jumping from past to present or from straight to ridiculous (the musical number about spinach pie, for example) at a dizzying pace that makes it hard to say whether we're engaged because we're having a good time or because we're simply trying to keep up.

Writers Dani Umpe (who wrote the novel on which the film is based) and Martin Sastre clearly had a blast crafting the film's over-the-top dialog and shaping its silly, sometimes stereotypical characters. Church lady-goblin Candida (Natalia's nemesis, played by Natalia Oreira, the same actress who plays Natalia) is a clichéd, hypocritical, holier-than-thou Cruella Deville. Jesus Himself, on the other hand, surprises us with his snappy dressing and his suave, easy dance moves.

Performances are consistently impressive throughout. The child actors who play the young Natalia and Carlos (Sofia Silvera and Mateo Capo) are sweet and completely natural as they attempt to battle the cruel, boring, and provincial town of Tacuarembó together. And supporting characters like Natalia's cleaning-lady mother Haydee (Mirella Pascual), are spot-on in their understated portrayal of small-town people trying to understand the frantic dreams of a stifled artist.

However, if we were supposed to be invested in seeing Natalia finally realize her dreams, the film fell short in achieving that effect. For the most part, we saw an aging, not especially talented woman whose pursuit of fame was more humorous and pathetic than destined for fulfillment. When we come to understand the extent of her self-delusion through a revelation during a talk show that should have been the dreamer's big break, we're left feeling pity -- not hope -- for the wannabe star.

As a novelty, though, Miss Tacuarembó has definite value for certain audiences. With its weird, colorful, disjointed, childish, and highly imaginative action, the fable-like film is a good pick for artists, children of the '80s, and anyone who wants to see the sexy side of Jesus Christ.

Miss Tacuarembó opens Friday, October 5, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, marking the film's debut run in the U.S. Tickets cost $11. Go to gablescinema.com or call 786-385-9689.

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