It pays, as a viewer, not to map a movie out in your head before it’s finished, something doubly so in the case of Viva, wherein young Cuban hairdresser Jesus (Héctor Medina) discovers a talent for drag queen performance that could save him from living hand to mouth. For all the world it looks like a cliché minefield by way of poverty porn crossed with shallow gay-kid-comes-good drama, which we come perilously close to during the first twenty minutes—scenes start and end like they’re being swapped through a telephone exchange, crude insults fly where characterisation seems to be absent, and then Jesus’ hard-drinking, abusive father Angel (Jorge Perugorría) shows up to spit on his son’s effemination and assert his dominance after a stint in jail. Something strange then happens: it files away every predictable plot turn before it’s halfway through its brisk 100-minute runtime, and director Paddy Breathnach gracefully guides his cast through hardships to an ending that packs an emotional wallop.
Just as the opening and premise leave it wide open to being written off by cynics, the distinctly Irish names that pepper its credits, like Breathnach’s, would raise immediate red flags on why a Cuban story is being told by a distinctly not-Cuban crew. While the film being shortlisted as Ireland’s entry into last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar competition is a terribly bizarre irony, that says more about the circus show of the Academy Awards than the theatrics here, which have been worked over as much as necessary for the story and dialogue to ring true.1 More importantly, cinematographer Cathal Watters and the sound department reproduce Havana with both respectful realism and artful mise-en-scene, both complementing each other as the narrative rides its emotional waves.
The same is true of its LGBTQ representation, though again, not at first. In the hurry to establish Jesus’ lifestyle and the nightclub scene that he sees his calling in, it reduces the other performers into cardboard cutouts, who speak bluntly and crudely seemingly for its own sake (and in a gratingly gendered fashion to boot, with “whore” being an overused insult across the board). A silver lining is that the expediency of these same scenes, achieved with sharp cutting by Stephen O’Connell, allows everything after to breathe, particularly the tough-love dynamic between Jesus and Mama, which evolves as fluidly as Jesus’ skills for performing as as his eponymous drag persona. There’s even some subversion at play in that Jesus’ friend uses crutches and arm casts to milk pity dollars out of his sex work clients, mocking their need to feel helpful in a way that uncannily reflects audiences’ need to champion feel-good inspiration tales. What lesser minority-focussed films work towards as their final-act happy ending, Viva waves away in favour of more genuine pleasures.
The most significant authenticity of all is in the relationship between Jesus and Angel, which Mark O’Halloran’s script takes as the core of the story and the avenue through which it consciously leaves behind conventional alternatives. It’s Perugorría who leads this charge into deft realism, by absolutely selling Angel’s volatility as a mask for deeper regrets, leaving him paralysed ringside as others take up the fights he once knew (literally—his attempts to reconnect with his old boxing gym are pathetic and heart-breaking). Medina, meanwhile, carries the pair’s transformation on his shoulders by imbuing Jesus’ every action, onstage and off, with the superlative kind of emotional states that include the conscious rejection of them.
The conflict comes from Angel threatening to disown Jesus if he ever performs as Viva again, but their dynamic is never hostile for hostility’s sake, always operating on a powerful ambivalence unique to family bonds.2. Eventually it undergoes a remarkable change fuelled by intimacy in both physical spacing and beautifully paced revelations, which Brethnach impressively realises through the simplest of scenarios (my favourite is a two-shot of them eating soft-serve on a street kerb, for instance). It’s a fraught journey for the two characters, and there comes a point at which the nightclub owner Mama (Luis Alberto García, wonderful) presents Jesus with a way out of his current circumstance, as though offering to end the film right then and there. Without giving away the boy’s response, it says a great deal about the emotional groundwork done by Breathnach and company.
Viva‘s few missteps aren’t exclusive to the opening stretch: one subplot involving Jesus’ childhood friend and her relationship with a testy wannabe boxing champ is weak, finishing in a way that comes close to being a mean-spirited retribution; and when Jesus turns to prostitution to get money in lieu of performing in drag, he naturally does the deed in the grimiest hotel room in all of Cuba, peeling wallpaper and all. The fact that O’Halloran himself acts as one of his clients, and is unknowingly robbed by Jesus before declaring him a “good boy”, shows some noble intentions that perhaps haven’t emerged intact from his screenplay. Thankfully, there’s a lot more to go around in the central father-son story, which are miraculously far from the kind that sees the tradition of poorer countries like Cuba re-appropriated by privileged artists. By the luminous ending scene,3 Viva has made that clear in marvellous style.