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