There are so many ways to fall for a film. You can be swept away by the score, or be mesmerized by the fashions used throughout. You can be entranced by a performance, or just be awe struck by the visuals on display. When you are lucky, you get one or two of these things to latch onto. But when you are taken off of your feet on a whirlwind by the entire package on screen, that is the true magic of cinema. And that is how I felt watching VIVA, an Irish produced film made in Havana, Cuba, directed by Paddy Breathnach (SHROOMS, BLOW DRY).
VIVA is the tale of Jesús (Héctor Medina, EL REY DE LA HABANA), a young hairdresser living alone and making a meager living from his few clients, mostly old ladies and the occasional drag queen. It’s that latter group that intrigues him. As a young gay male in a very patriarchal society, Jesús has experienced a lifetime of persecution. And with his mother deceased and his father missing, he’s yearning to find his calling and just a little bit of guidance. He finds that in Mama (Luis Alberto García, LOVE BY MISTAKE), the owner of the local drag queen club and star of the weekly show.
<blockquote>”Why do you want to do this?”
“I don’t know. It’s strong. It’s pretty. Right? I want something for myself, Mama.”</blockquote>
Mama looks out for Jesús as any proper mentor should. And while the other queens in their troupe don’t see anything special in him, Mama pushes Jesús to allow his true character to come alive on stage while lip syncing to classic Cuban ballads. All they can see is that he is taking potential tips from their pockets and that he doesn’t know how to properly tuck. They goad him into pursuing a character that looks unscrupulous but is new to the club, so may have deep pockets. Instead Jesús just receives a fistful of knuckles to his face mid-song.
That stranger just so happens to be Jesús’ long-lost father, Ángel (Jorge Perugorría, STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE). The former boxer turns out to have been rotting in prison after drunkenly killing someone in a brawl. He’s returned to take back over his house and see what Jesús is up to. And of course, he doesn’t quite approve of his son’s chosen path. What follows is their path to reconciliation and getting to know each other, overcoming addiction (Ángel’s), yet keeping Jesús away his newfound talents.
<blockquote> “Still the most beautiful slum in the world.”</blockquote>
While being an Irish produced film, it still allows the city of Havana to be its own character. It is both lush with vegetation and history, while being run down due to the rampant poverty. Its people are ostentatious and proud, no matter how little they have, yet they are also willing to easily overlook the meek unless they need something from them.
Having started with comedies and light dramas, Breathnach’s latest work was in horror and most recently a documentary about his father’s search for the truth about his own father. These recent works allowed Breathnach to tap into that familial yearning, and cover a wide range of emotions throughout the storytelling. While there isn’t a sense of dread felt, you do fear for Jesús’ well being. You want him to succeed and prove everyone wrong. And that feeling starts almost the moment you first lay eyes on him.
VIVA is available in digital HD via Magnolia Films and can be found at the following places: