Selected as the Irish entry for the 88th Academy Awards earlier this year, Viva explores familial relationships, sexuality and machismo in Havana, Cuba.
It’s directed by Paddy Breathnach, but it’s a world away from the schlock horror of his previous pictures Shrooms and Freakdog.
It’s a departure for the director, but is it worth a look when comes out on general release in Ireland on 19 August?
Viva opens on an aerial shot of Havana at night. The city is lit up like a Christmas tree. Cut to a small saloon where an older, heavyset drag queen lip-syncs to a pop song.
The audience in the bar are enraptured, and I was taken by this opening as well. The forcefulness and confidence of the production speaks to Breathnach’s considerable experience with material far above horrific magic mushrooms or ghostly avengers.
As the opening number wraps up the action moves backstage. Jesus (Héctor Medina) fixes the performers’ wigs and watches from behind the curtain with envy and admiration as another drag queen shimmies onto the stage.
By day, Jesus works as a hairdresser for the old folks around town, and by night he’s a stylist for the drag queens in Mama’s troupe.
Mama (Luis Alberto García) serves as a parental figure for Jesus, whose mother passed away some years previously. Jesus has no relationship with his father, a former boxing talent, who is serving a prison sentence for killing a man.
Jesus’ daily life is captured wonderfully in montage that’s a bit like a gritty travelogue.
Viva is at times a heartwarming picture approaching schmaltz, but there is a groundedness to it as well, something that is especially evident in the shots of Havana and its street life.
The sun’s out but everything is peeling or broken down, and people live with nothing. Some are contented, others frustrated, but they’re all here for us to see on the big screen.
In his cramped apartment, Jesus flirts with the notion of becoming a drag queen. In one sequence, he tries on his housemate’s dress and poses in front of the mirror. Mama is not entirely convinced by Jesus’s drag persona, Viva, but allows him to perform.
It is during the performance that things take a turn. Viva dances with a reluctant patron at the bar, who punches him out. Then the big reveal: papa’s out of prison and he’s not best pleased with his son’s career path.
From Diego to Ángel
The casting of Jorge Perugorría as Jesus’ father, Ángel, is inspired.
Audiences will know Perugorría from 1994’s Strawberry and Chocolate, in which he portrayed Diego, a gay artist dissatisfied with Castro’s government and their treatment of the LGBT community. The film was a critical hit, and its success is sure to have influenced the production team behind Viva.
Perugorría’s character Ángel in Viva is the opposite of his Diego in Strawberry and Chocolate. Ángel is conservative, macho and fearful of what he doesn’t understand.
He is a drunkard who uses his fists rather than his words to express himself. He can’t relate to Jesus, but has nowhere else to turn.
Jesus resents his father, but feels an obligation to tradition. Familial loyalty sits alongside machismo as an enduring aspect of the culture, no matter how destructive they may be.
The father/son relationship in Viva is all about the gradual breaking down of boundaries. The characters appear squashed within the film’s wide-angle framing.
They inhabit the corners of scenes, nearly always sitting or standing at the far right of a room. Jesus and Ángel are constricted by their environment, forced into proximity, but unable to feel close to one another.
As the plot progresses and the men grow closer, the framing gradually becomes less stifling. But it remains just as deliberate.
Jesus cuts his father’s hair in the centre of their tiny apartment. Later, there’s a little tribute to Strawberry and Chocolate as the two men bond over ice cream and beer.
Later still, when Ángel’s hard living begins to take its toll, the men are pressed close together in tight frames. The composition expresses more than words can, especially for a quiet macho man like Ángel.
In sequences where Jesus takes to the stage as his alter ego, his performance is shot with a fluid, roaming camera. Viva is at the heart (centre) of the frame, and unconstrained movement is the focal point of our attention.
This wordless lip syncing expression and exaggerated pantomime allows for the rigidity of his environment to change. He is free and allowed to – aptly enough – live a life of his own choosing.
Towards the close of the film, Ángel accepts Jesus as his son, while also accepting Viva in a rousing musical number that made me wish the subtitles included translations for the song lyrics as well. Viva reaches spine-tingling emotional heights on numerous occasions, but this reconciliation sequence is certainly the film’s high point.
Viva certainly tells a story that is familiar to cinemagoers. I jokingly described the film to a colleague as a “drag queen The Jazz Singer” after the screening. I think that’s a good summation, as well as an indicator of what to expect from the film as a whole.
Breathnach and screenwriter, Mark O’Halloran are working with well-worn material here, but they bring a unique ambience to the disapproving father plot line (I can’t think of another Irish film set in Cuba).
There’s more to Viva than that, though: there’s a harshness, a sense of overbearing from the setting that gives way to a raw emotional payoff that is truly touching.