With a soft heart hidden under a gritty shell of reality, Viva is a story about the blooming of a quiet soul when everything around it threatens to crush it under a boot heel. Irish director, Paddy Breathnach, fantastically weaves a narrative that resonates with anyone, no matter their gender or sexual bias, and, even though the film takes place in Cuba and in a foreign language, he commands the knowledge needed to make this character’s journey work. Through the great work from actor Héctor Medina, we are right on side the main character of Jesus, hanging on every moment of his plight, begging for some sort of happy resolution.
A movie is only as strong as its commander and Breathnach may be a name that many are unfamiliar with but he definitely has a unique eye. Having made his first feature in 1994, he didn’t see international recognition until the 2001 comedy Blow Dry with Josh Hartnett and the late Alan Rickman. The film was not well received at all and definitely flew under my radar as I discovered the filmmaker in 2007. While working at a video store, I came across the movie Shrooms, a psychedelic horror film about a handful of friends, well, taking some magic mushrooms. Little to their knowledge, they’ve taken “death’s head” mushrooms and are in for the worst trip of their lives. The film was smart, darkly funny and with visual and story twists that kept me engaged the whole time. I was definitely interested in what Paddy Breathnach was doing after this. Unfortunately, nothing caught my interest until I was informed of Viva.
The story is mainly about Jesus, a young gay man living in Havana, Cuba, working as a hairdresser for family and friends and helping the local drag queen club with the upkeep on their numerous wigs. Close to destitute and looking for a way out, Jesus earns meager earnings in his hairdressing work and sometimes resorts to prostituting himself to tourists at the park, a gay hook up spot. Seeing a way out of having to degrade himself like this, he decides that he wants to become a drag performer for the club owner who has been so good to him, Mama, and someone who is a bit reluctant to put Jesus on stage. This isn’t to stifle Jesus’s creative process, but to protect him from the sinking feeling of failure.
After a disastrous first performance, Jesus is commanded to try again but with more practice under his belt. The second time goes fantastically but is ended when a customer he flirts with becomes violent and assaults him. As it turns out, the man was Jesus’s estranged father, Angel, a washed up alcoholic boxer looking to reconnect with his son. Jesus tracks him down after and Angel moves into his tiny apartment. The sexual boundary between father and son becomes too much for Angel to handle and he commands Jesus to never go to the club again, let alone take the stage. This forces Jesus to close himself off to anything that makes him happy and resort more and more to the dangerous money-making avenues to support his small household, losing himself completely in the process.
With an incredible mosaic of transgender characters establishing themselves from the first moment of the film, Viva thrusts you into a very sexually charged world that Jesus seems to be just a passenger in and not a participant. It’s a real treat, as the viewer, to see Jesus’s world open up and his confidence swell as he stares into the spotlight and lip syncs to his record for the first time. It makes it that much more tragic when he obeys his long lost father, denying himself something that actually gave himself a purpose but shows the person Jesus really is, a nurturing soul who will sacrifice whatever it takes to care for those important to him.
For me, the gorgeousness of the film is something I couldn’t look away from. Breathnach employs fellow Irishman, Cathal Watters, as his cinematographer and, like the director, has a natural and world-wise knowledge to his film. This director of photography seems to have the same ease and comfortability. Incredibly framed shots, whether a close-up or following the action from a fair distance, Watters makes every shot something compelling. The transition from these shots of the aged and crumbling cityscape of Havana to the glitz and glamor of drag queens strutting on the stage is a contrast that is impeccably played upon.
Viva is a film that will not be easily discovered by a casual moviegoer but is for those cinephiles who search out the international films without a big ad campaign behind them. Having the name of Benicio Del Toro as executive producer on it should give it enough of a boost to be noticed by a bigger audience, or the fact that it was in the running for a best foreign nomination at the Oscars, but this film will go largely unnoticed in North America. The film is a darker sort and won’t appeal to those looking for an Adventures of Pricilla, Queen of the Desert but those looking for a good character-centric drama will be satisfied with the motions this story goes through. I give Viva a four out of five.