Film Review: VIVA (2016) DIR. PADDY BREATHNACH
Wannabe Cubafiles rejoice. Welcome to the demimonde that you fantasize about when you think about the Cuba that you are hoping to visit. If you can’t get there soon, this is not a bad substitute.
Set in old Havana with all of its gorgeous colonial architecture, brilliantly-hued paint-peeling splendor and tropical lushness. It is all so cinemagraphic and photogenic you almost don’t need more. But there is more to love. These decrepit streets and alleys are populated with a beautifully-drawn cast of quirky outcasts and misfits. There are the bitchy drag queens, their spiritual mother, aptly named Mama, the drunken bullying ex-con, a male hooker, and a gay hairdresser, Jesus, who aspires to be a drag performer.
The central character, Jesus (Hector Medina) has been living in the shabby apartment he grew up in since his mother died years ago (his father having deserted them when he was a baby). He has been supporting himself as a freelance hairdresser for the older ladies in the neighborhood, who often pay him with food, and as a wig stylist for the drag queens at a popular Havana night club. The club and it’s denizens are a surrogate family for Jesus. It is run by an older drag queen known as Mama (Luis Albert García) who treats him like a son. Jesus is a sort of mascot to the other drag queens.
When he reveals his heartfelt desire to perform, Mama tries to dissuade him. But when she learns that he sometimes has to turn tricks to make enough money to support himself she gives him a chance. He is awkward and unconvincing at first but over time begins to show some promise. And just as he is hitting his stride his real father, Angel (Jorge Perugorría) comes back to haunt him. Angel, whom he has neither seen nor heard from since he was three years old, walks into the club, punches him in the face mid performance and drags him out - announcing that he is moving back into the house and taking control. The father has just been released from prison for a violent crime and is a drunken, angry bully who refuses to allow Jesus to perform at the club.
This is a hard pill to swallow for Jesus. It means that he will have to go back to turning tricks to make enough money to support his deadbeat dad who does nothing but abuse him between lame attempts at being a normal father. Jesus really tries to make the new reality work and find some forgiveness, which he is able to do when he realizes his father is ill and has not got long to live. The journey to redemption for Angel and self-realization for Jesus is a rocky road. But the moment that the circle is closed is the best part of the film and it is an emotional tour de force that even a professional cynic like myself could not resist.
The director gets superb performances from the whole cast who manage to elicit our empathy for even the most questionable characters. Particularly mesmerizing is Hector Medina who is central to nearly every frame. To watch him evolve from the passively introverted victim into a person who finally thinks enough of himself to own his life and take control of it is a study in subtlety. His androgynous portrayal is mesmerizingly convincing and watchable.
Text by Belle McIntyre