Dzi Croquettes reclaims the eponymous avant-garde theater group as major figures in Brazil’s history of state terrorism and artistic resistance. More than just a “bunch of faggots” (as the dictatorship’s guards that surveilled them would put it), the 13-member 1960s troupe of gender-fucking, glitter-covered polyglot queens was “queer” at a time when the word was still just another gay slur. Theirs was a status quo-shattering kind of camp, circumventing censorship through sarcasm, crafting intricate and combustible juxtapositions including a black queen delivering a gut-wrenching version of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quittes Pas” in a pink wedding gown—and combat boots. “It was like someone saying, ‘Look, that’s what life is all about, [what] being human is about,’” says one of the film’s talking heads—mostly former members of the group and the crème de la crème of Brazil’s actors and directors, but also Liza Minnelli, one of the Dzi Croquettes’ most enthusiastic godmothers. At one point they try conquering Europe, performing in Paris for the likes of Omar Sharif, Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, and Josephine Baker, who requests that the Dzi Croquettes replace her as Theatre Bobino’s main act once she dies, which they do.
Dzi Croquettes is largely an homage to the theater group’s leading man, American choreographer and dancer Lennie Dale, who adopted Brazil as the stage for his uncategorizably experimental art pieces, which often included androgynous bodies (pink tutus and hairy chests) in clownish makeup spreading their wings and addressing the audience in various languages, claiming not to be men but not women either, “just people, like all of you.” Like a squad of Madame Satãs, they endear you and they assault you, their bedazzling never gratuitous, always a political provocation. The lyrics seem always attached to social-class anxieties and bitchy braggadocio (“It’s not my fault I am this posh. I was born like this, and will die like this”), the kind of nasty and hyper-feminine sensibility that echoes Brazil’s contemporary drag culture, as in the 2010 DJ Rafael Lelis hit “Eu Sou Rica (Pobreza Pega).”
There’s something disconcerting, perhaps very telling, about the present-day celebrity talking heads in the film—mostly Botoxed, impeccably groomed figures inhabiting slick bourgeois apartments, reminiscing about a time when the aesthetic was the revolution. Filmmaker Tatiana Issa, whose father was part of the Dzi Croquettes’ technical team, lends her voice to the narration inconsistently here and there, hoping to add a layer of intimacy with some autobiographical information (when she was growing up she thought of gays as cute little clowns), most notably to deliver the well-intentioned, if not ingenuously offensive, maxim “Gays don’t die, they turn into glitter.”
What’s easy to appreciate in the documentary, however, is the way it reassembles the Dzi Croquettes’ trajectory without polishing off its jagged edges. It’s through their brilliance and their flaws that they become muses. Instead of closing off with easy intertitles, Dzi Croquettes delivers its inevitable denouement through refreshingly non-hagiographic accounts by close friends; the orgies, the cocaine, the pot smuggling, the murders, the “gay cancer” are all there. And unlike Issa suggests, they don’t look anything as lovely and uncomplicated as glitter.