Viva is Rocky in drag and sequins, transplanted to Havana. The movie is pure formula, but it’s surprisingly effective anyway, because director Paddy Breathnach and screenwriter Mark O’Halloran don’t sugarcoat the reality of life on the island. Instead, they incorporate the hardscrabble nature of their characters’ existence into the story: The Irish perspective makes an unexpectedly good fit with Cuba (the movie was Ireland’s submission for the 2015 Academy Awards).
The story of Jesus (Héctor Medina), a young gay man who gives up his drag-singing dreams in order to please his boorish father (Jorge Perugorría) would be, in almost any other film, a tale about coming of age. But in Viva, Jesus’ plight carries extra meaning: Landing a steady gig at a nightclub, where the patrons are mostly tourists flush with cash, represents a means of survival — an alternative to making pennies as a hairdresser and occasionally having to resort to prostitution.
Perugorría, the star of the Oscar-nominated Strawberry and Chocolate, and Medina, a slender, charismatic young actor, aren’t just playing combative father and son — they’re also mirrors for the generational differences and attitudes toward post-revolution Cuba. The father, a former boxer who has just gotten out of prison, has fantasized about leaving the island every single day. The son, who knows nothing other than poverty, has never thought about living anywhere else. He’s just learned how to make do with what he has.
Viva, which was shot on location, captures both sides of Cuba — the grimy squalor of its slums and the glitzy allure of its tourist attractions. The movie is a crowd-pleaser, but it doesn’t ignore the darkness inherent in the story (take that R rating seriously). Jesus is caught in the middle of a tug of war between his biological father, who wants the kid to suppress his homosexuality, and the drag star Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia), who encourages Jesus to follow his heart. A melodramatic twist brings the conflict to its foregone conclusion. But the movie is also hilariously rude and, at times, surprisingly sweet. And unlike too many films shot in Cuba, Viva never forsakes its characters for the sake of politics.
Cast: Héctor Medina, Jorge Perugorría, Luis Alberto Garcia, Laura Aleman.
Director: Paddy Breathnach.
Screenwriter: Mark O’Halloran.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 100 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, nudity, graphic sex, adult themes. Playing at area theaters. In Miami-Dade: O Cinema Wynwood, Tower.