The 20th century history of LGBT rights in Cuba has been one of systemic and institutional homophobia and bigotry. Between 1959 and 1980, gay men in particular are said to have suffered targeted discrimination from street sweeps to detention in labour camps, and any effeminate behaviour was targeted. VIVA is both a story set in the legacy of this machismo, and an affirmation of the modern Cuban scene.
Jesus (Héctor Medina) struggles to make ends meet as a hairdresser, but dreams of showcasing his fledgling talent in the local drag club run by Mama (Luis Alberto García). However, when his estranged ex-boxer father Angel (Jorge Perugorría) returns into his life, having not seen him since he was three, Jesus is confronted by old-school male bigotry, forced out of the night life while his rum-soaked father wallows in his own failed dreams.
In VIVA, writer Mark O’Halloran and director Paddy Breathnach (I Went Down) spends some time ticking off some of the tropes of the genre. Everyone takes advantage of Jesus; he is forced to turn tricks for money; and his father’s reasons for returning is telegraphed fairly early on in the piece. So too is the manner by which they reach their ultimate resolution. Regardless, the film is bolstered by strong central performances from Medina and Perugorría, alongside an understated strength in García’s Mama character. There’s a scene in the third act where Medina sincerely professes to his father his reasons for wanting to perform, and it sums up the plight of Cuba’s gay community for the last few decades. Cathal Watters ground-level photography of Cuba’s poorer districts adds to the reality of the film, yet there’s also some stunning vistas of what Angel refers to as a one of the most “beautiful slums” in the world. Featuring music by Stephen Rennicks (Room), VIVA is at its strongest and most emotional during the drag performances, where the stars give it their all. VIVA rises about its occasionally predictable genre leanings, and it’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser.
2015 | Ireland | DIR: Paddy Breathnach | WRITER: Mark O’Halloran | CAST: Miguel Nunes, Margarida Vila-Nova, Ricardo Pereira | DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission Films (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes | RATING: ★★★½ (7/10)