VIVA, drama, rated R, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3 chiles

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Jonathan Richards

The sweet­ness of Je­sus (Héc­tor Medina), a young wannabe drag per­former in a seedy Ha­vana night­club, per­me­ates and car­ries this en­dear­ing ex­plo­ration and af­fir­ma­tion of iden­tity on the fringes of so­ci­ety.

The setup is a fa­mil­iar one. Back­stage at Mama’s, a club where drag queen di­vas emote in lip-synced pas­sion to clas­sic Cuban recorded songs, Je­sus tends to the hair and wigs of the per­form­ers and dreams of be­ing a star him­self one day. He lives on his own in a dingy walkup in a Ha­vana slum. He’s a near or­phan — his mother is dead, and he hasn’t seen his fa­ther, a for­mer prize­fighter who went to prison for man­slaugh­ter, since he was three. He makes hair­dress­ing house­calls and turns gay tricks to help make ends meet. He grudg­ingly lets his friend Ce­cilia (Laura Alemán) use his apart­ment for sex with her boyfriend Javier (Os­car Ibarra Napoles), an as­pir­ing boxer whose fists, Ce­cilia hopes, “are go­ing to take me to Mi­ami.”

Je­sus’ break comes when one of the drag queens ab­sconds, and Mama (Luis Al­berto Gar­cía), the aging, warm-hearted pro­pri­etor and star of the club, holds au­di­tions to fill the hole in the bill. Je­sus gets the gig, tak­ing the stage name Viva, but he un­der­whelms in his maiden out­ing. Mama gives him an­other chance, and some ad­vice on how to con­nect with the clien­tele. His sec­ond ap­pear­ance pro­vokes more fire­works.

But just as things are look­ing up and Je­sus is be­gin­ning to live his dream, fate throws a mon­key wrench in the re­turn of his fa­ther, An­gel ( Jorge Peru­gor­ría). An­gel, a drunken repro­bate and a ma­cho ho­mo­phobe, takes up res­i­dence in his old apart­ment, and flatly lays down the law to his ef­fem­i­nate son: No more drag shows. There will be no great sur­prises as the story plays out, but the charm of the ac­tors and the at­mos­phere of the club and the city make it a plea­sure to ne­go­ti­ate.

This film is a cu­ri­ous hy­brid, a Cuban movie made by Ir­ish­men, and you may feel a warm breath of Ir­ish sen­ti­men­tal­ity waft­ing through it from writer Mark O’Hal­lo­ran and di­rec­tor Paddy Breath­nach. But the story, while an old one, feels sat­is­fy­ingly steeped in the Ha­vana that, even now, may be be­gin­ning to dis­ap­pear un­der the on­slaught of cruise ships and Amer­i­can tourists.

What we see is not the city of pic­turesque old Amer­i­can cars and candy-col­ored build­ing fa­cades. It’s a por­trait of scruffy, liv­ably seedy neigh­bor­hoods where peo­ple scrape by and help each other out. In one scene, An­gel and Je­sus stand on the roof of their apart­ment build­ing and look out over the cityscape be­low. “This is still the most beau­ti­ful slum in the world,” An­gel sighs. Be sure to stay for the end cred­its, and an amus­ing bit of post­script.

Like a bird in a gilded cage: Héc­tor Medina

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