VIVA (Ireland/Cuba/15A/99mins)
Directed by Paddy Breathnach. Starring Hector Medina, Jorge Perugorria, Luis Alberto Garcia, Laura Aleman, Luis Manuel Alvarez, Mark O’Halloran.
Almost making a living by cutting old ladies hair and looking after the wigs down at the local drag queen bar, when one of the performers at the latter does a smash-and-grab in the night, Jesus (Medina) is more than tempted to try and fill their high-heels. Mama (Garcia) is not so sure that his favourite backstage worker is ready for the limelight, but nonetheless allows the skinny, young enthusiast to step out to his late mother’s old vinyl collection of torch songs. Jesus doesn’t quite stand tall, or straight, in those high-heels, but there’s plenty of promise there. Promise that is suddenly stopped in its tracks when his wayward father, Angel (Perugorria), turns up at the bar after years inside. The evening ends with Jesus bloodied on the floor.
Moving back in to the family home, the gruff, brutish, drunken Angel claims that he’s ready to become the good father at last – and for him, that means no more drag for his son. A once famous boxer, Angel can’t quite accept the idea of his own son in a dress, but, without that drag club income, Jesus is forced to make money on the streets…
THE VERDICT: From the Bible to Bracken and Billy Elliot, tales of fathers banging heads with sons have long fascinated storytellers, and for Irish filmmaker Paddy Breathnach (‘I Went Down’, ‘Man About Dog’), a 1996 trip to Havana sparked his latest offering. It was one Cuban family’s home-built venue for their drag queen son that really stuck with Paddy, and he soon had an outline for a story winging its way to Mark O’Halloran (‘Adam & Paul’, ‘Garage’, etc), who weaved the idea into a working script. And if the plot isn’t exactly original, Viva is still an effecting and beautifully-crafted affair.
Much credit – beyond Breathnach’s light-touch direction – must go to both the cast (Medina, in particular, is perfect as the steely and effeminate Jesus) and to cinematographer Cathal Watters (making the move into fiction features after Aoife Kelleher’s ‘One Million Dubliners’ and upcoming ‘Strange Occurences In A Small Irish Village’). Managing to avoid going full Havana Tourism, Watters captures the shadows and sun-kissed poverty of Jesus’ world beautifully, whilst Medina shines even stronger when surrounded by such subtle play from the likes of Perugorria and Garcia. It would have been easy for the cast here to go full Mexican novellas.
Comparisons to Almodovar will jump out initially for most people, but, once you step into Viva, you’ll find Breathnach has created his own particular twisted love story. Undoubtedly one of the more seductive and satisfying Irish films in recent years, ‘Viva’ captures the same heady mix of the sensual and the grit of everyday people trying to make it in the big bad world as achieved with Sheridan’s sublime ‘In America’.
Review by Paul Byrne

  • filmbuff2011

    Irish film Viva is a curious change of direction for director Paddy Breathnach and writer Mark O’Halloran. For it’s not a film set in Ireland, but instead captures the local colour and life of Havana, Cuba. All the better for it too.

    Jesus (Hector Madina) is a young man in Havana trying to make a living out of hairdressing, but it isn’t enough. He’s always one paycheck away from having to resort to ‘other’ means of income. He befriends Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia), the local owner of a drag club, whom he sees as a father figure. Jesus sees something in the drag performers, who dress up and lip-synch to melodramatic but powerful songs by classic Hispanic singers. Mama gives Hector the opportunity to step on the stage one night, under the name Viva. It doesn’t go so well and later on Jesus gets a punch in the face from a stranger. That stranger turns out to be his estranged father Angel (Jorge Perugoria). Angel is out of prison and is looking to live off Jesus. He also disapproves of his son’s choice of extra-curricular activities. Angel comes to live with Jesus. The cold war between them gradually thaws into grudging acceptance, as Jesus finds his true voice…

    The genesis of Viva was a conversation between Breathnach and O’Halloran over their shared love of Cuba. Breathnach had been there in the 1990s and found himself taken with the extraordinary emotion and power that the local drag queens put into their performances. O’Halloran had spent time in a gay B&B there, talking to the drag queens and being fascinated with their colourful lives. Breathnach’s previous two films were horrors Shrooms and the little-seen Freakdog, so Viva didn’t seem like the most obvious choice. But what Breathnach and O’Halloran have done is create something unique, special and a celebration of life in all its variety – never mind where the story is set.

    While a film about the Cuban drag scene might not sound that initially appealing to an Irish audience, it’s definitely worth giving the film a chance. For this is a film that revels in its environment and characters, who transcend stock types to become three dimensional, Technicolor charmers. All that research by Breathnach and O’Halloran has paid off, as they’ve captured the local flair and spice of life that comes with Havana. That authenticity is what drives the film – and it even got the seal of approval from Havanans themselves.

    Beyond the local flavour, the characters themselves have been carefully written too. O’Halloran wrote the script in English with Irish colloquialisms, asking for an equivalent translation into Spanish. The characters arcs are so wonderfully written too, with the relationship between the central trio of Jesus, Angel and Mama being particularly strong. The actors breath life into these characters too – all of whom are excellent, even the smaller players. Viva has enough emotion and power in it to power a nightclub for a week, but it also impresses greatly in its smaller, quieter moments too. Viva is a delicious taste of Havana life. ****