Walking into the small theater, cozying up into my rickety chair, and readying myself for Viva, I have to admit my expectations were rather low. It seemed, to me, that the idea of an almost entirely Irish crew unearthing the tense color of youth and gender identity in Havana, Cuba was at the very least a frivolous affair. Perhaps I just crave to be told that exact story, but maybe from the very people that are actually living it.
To my most pleasant surprise, however, director Paddy Breathnach allows Viva to breathe delicately, ferociously, and with enough distinct Cuban passion that made those previous doubts and trepidations quickly melt away the first time we see Héctor Medina as our leading young man Jesus listening to his mother’s records in his lonely apartment, and dancing with the grace that he so wishes to embrace with pride instead of fear.
Let me tell you a little more about Jesus. Living in an urban quarter of Havana, in a building where his friends who happen to be prostitutes can plead their way into using his bed for the day; in an apartment where he has had to sustain his own life after the death of his mother and the imprisonment of his all-star boxer of a father, Jesus craves color. He craves song. He craves to move his hips to the rhythm of a beautiful life rather than an existance where he has to cut old ladies hair and hope to not have to work the streets to make rent.
So, when Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia), the proprietor of the local drag show, reveals that one of their girls dropped out last minute, Jesus drops the blow dryer and begs to be given a chance on the stage. Though Mama sees little hope for this skinny string bean who can’t seem to stand up in heels let alone strut in them, he gives him a shot.
It’s at that very moment when Viva is born, and you won’t be able to fall out of love with her. If only we could say the same for his father Angel (Jorge Perugorría) who makes a sudden reappearance and makes his disapproval clearly known as he steps obtrusively back into Jesus’ life just as Viva begins to bloom.
And then that love for Viva grows deeper, and so much of that love is due to Medina’s performance. While at first seeming overly green and unsure of himself on screen, just like Viva he ends up plunging himself into the whirlwind of stage life where you can put on a wig, new makeup, and a beautiful dress and all of the sudden purpose is born. Medina begins to lead us rather than allow us to follow, and suddenly we feel our own purpose fall into place.
Much of the film’s relentless pull is due to a sort of elasticity that surrounds Jesus and his community. The people, the movement of them, and the sounds that drive their movement form this constant state of tension, and while many of them would like to leave the city or each other because of it, doing so is nearly impossible. This is home. The person standing next to you is your brother. To throw it away would be to throw an irrevocable piece of self that could no longer be replaced.
This idea of precarious pride that drives so much of Viva’s structure, is largely thanks, of course, to director Breathnach (Shrooms, Blow Dry) and screenwriter Mark O’Hallaran (Garage) who, after spending many years in Havana, observing the simultaneous lush and grit of the city’s pulse, were able to create an environment on screen that was neither belittling nor exaggerating what it means to be Cuban.
That being said, there are elements of the script that do rely too heavily on melodrama, namely in the relationship between Jesus and Angel. Though the dichotomy of the fallen masculine icon versus the rising effeminate son is strong and sexy all at once, sometimes the simple interplay between the two characters comes off overwrought and overdone.
In the end, however, it is Jesus; it is Angel; it is Mama that keeps us locked to the screen. It is their story after all, and if all it took were a couple of Irish folk to tell it, then I’m happy to cheer Viva on stage any day.
VIVA opens at Laemmle’s Playhouse and other theaters nationwide on Friday, April 29th.