You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Viva’

Irish helmer Paddy Breathnach's Oscar-shortlisted fable from the Havana drag scene is sanitized but gets emotional results.

Hector Medina, Jorge Perugorria, Luis Alberto Garcia, Laura Aleman, Luis Manuel Alvarez, Paula Ali, Jorge Martinez, Luis Angel Batista, Luis Daniel Ventura, Maikol Villa Puey, Oscar Ibarra, Jorge Acosta, Mark O'Halloran. (Spanish dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4334482/

Even the fiercest queens on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” aren’t put through the wringer half as rigorously as the twiggy protagonist of “Viva” — an aspiring Havana drag artiste who must survive severe poverty, prostitution, parental abuse and family tragedy atop the strain of lip-syncing for his life. Irish helmer Paddy Breathnach’s kind-hearted, fleet-footed Cuban diversion doesn’t wallow in such woe, however. If anything, this understandably Oscar-shortlisted crowdpleaser skirts the sharpest edges of its hard-luck tale, playing softball with matters of homosexuality and prejudice; heavily telegraphed melodrama, meanwhile, provides short-cut solutions to complex character conflicts. Like its eponymous stage performer, however, “Viva” appealingly makes up for a coy approach with gutsy, grabby follow-through on the high notes.

“Why is everyone on this island addicted to f—ing drama?” someone wails midway through “Viva” — though it seems unlikely that everyday life in Cuba trades in quite as many soap-operatic twists of fate as Breathnach’s film does in 100 confrontation-heavy minutes. It’s a line that betrays an outsider’s perspective, from the writer if not the speaker.

Irish actor-screenwriter Mark O’Halloran, who penned Lenny Abrahamson’s Eire-set features “Adam & Paul” and “Garage,” can’t quite bring a tangy native vernacular to proceedings, though he does observe the peeling, flaking streets of Havana with a sensitive tourist’s appreciation. “It’s the most beautiful slum in the world,” one character remarks — another line that doesn’t sound entirely like something a son of the city would say, though all credit to O’Halloran and Breathnach (not to mention the lovely, glitter-and-dust imagery of cinematographer Cathal Watters) for pursuing that beauty.

Popular on Variety

However qualified, the realism of “Viva” reps a marked change of pace for Breathnach from the heightened horror exploits of “Shrooms” and “Freakdog,” or even the rollicking comedy of his breakout feature “I Went Down”; indeed, about the closest connection that can be drawn with his previous filmography is a tonsorial theme shared with 2001’s Josh Hartnett misfire “Blow Dry.” Alone in the world following his mother’s death, self-sufficient gay twentysomething Jesus (winsome newcomer Hector Medina) scrapes together a living as a hairdresser to his neighborhood’s similarly destitute womenfolk; by night, he supplements that meager income styling wigs for the performers at a local drag-revue dive run by formidable queen bee Mama (a marvelous Luis Alberto Garcia).

As Medina’s pure, wonderstruck expression handily shorthands for viewers in the film’s opening shots, Jesus would rather be wearing the wigs himself. Having inherited from his mother a worshipful adoration of ugly-crying Latin songbirds, he dreams of taking the stage despite neither walking the walk nor talking the talk: “They can see her c— from Cienfuegos,” Mama’s acidic underling Cindy (Luis Manuel Alvarez) mutters when Jesus first tries out at the club in the gawky, brunette-beehived guise of his alter ego, Viva. Contrary to expectations of a story set in this polyester underworld — the intricate cultural and psychological specifics of which are only passingly illustrated here — “Viva” goes pretty light on such bitchery. Jesus has a heftier problem on his hands, anyway, when his pugilistic ex-con father Angel (Jorge Perugorria), who abandoned him as an infant, unexpectedly shows up on the scene.

Grudgingly accepting of his son’s homosexuality yet violently intolerant of his adventures in drag, Angel bullishly moves into Jesus’ scabby apartment and lays down the law. The true reason for his return is about as predictable as the bittersweet peacemaking that haltingly occurs between father and son: Tensions alternately flare and are doused by unconditional love in the film’s somewhat squashy midsection, though the rapport built between Medina and Perugorria is honest and mutually attentive. It’s a formulaic prelude to a bawl that nonetheless nets the required, mascara-streaking outcome through sheer generosity of spirit.

If O’Halloran’s power-of-being-yourself fable is finally a little easier to feel than it is to believe, that’s due less to the generic clichés that are included than the individual details that are left out: Though he works part-time (and in tastefully masked close-up) as a rent boy, Jesus appears to have no sexual history or urges of his own. For a film that otherwise evocatively samples the sweat-soaked surfaces of Havana’s seamier side streets, nightspots and boxing gyms, “Viva” is surprisingly shy of carnality.

Palatably presented as they are, it’s in the drag-club scenes that “Viva” really sings — or at least, like its primped and powdered performers, vigorously mimes. That’s in large part thanks to the galvanizing presence of Garcia’s Mama, a tough-loving surrogate parent to Jesus who gives the film’s father-son deliberations a necessary twist of lime. Still, the routines — too briefly glimpsed outside of Viva’s increasingly confident, chest-beating diva stylings — are shot and cut with a hot neon crackle that breaks through the cozier trappings of Breathnach’s style.

For English-speaking audiences, it might seem a curious error that the Spanish-language songs themselves go untranslated by the subtitlers: Viva’s showpiece numbers convey the authentic, gut-level personal expression that the best drag artists can find in someone else’s face, voice and lyrics. For viewers who can’t decipher the words behind the anguish, on the other hand, it’s truly a case of the singer, not the song.

Film Review: 'Viva'

Reviewed online, London, April 25, 2016. (At Telluride, Sundance, Palm Springs festivals.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 100 MIN.

Production: (Ireland-Cuba) A Magnolia Pictures (in U.S.) release of an Irish Film Board presentation of a Treasure Entertainment production in association with RTE, Windmill Lane Pictures, Island Films. Produced by Cathleen Dore, Nelson Navarro Navarro, Robert Walpole, Rebecca O'Flanagan. Executive producers, Benicio Del Toro, Rory Gilmartin, Renzo Trivellini. Co-producers, Claire McCaughley, Sarah Gunn.

Crew: Directed by Paddy Breathnach. Screenplay, Mark O'Halloran. Camera (color, widescreen), Cathal Watters; editor, Stephen O'Connell; music, Stephen Rennicks; production designer, Paki Smith; costume designer, Sofia Marques; sound, Evelio Manfred; sound editors, Morgan Caparelli, Fionan Higgins; line producer, Nelson Navarro Navarro; assistant director, Carlos Bustamante; casting, Libia Batista.

With: Hector Medina, Jorge Perugorria, Luis Alberto Garcia, Laura Aleman, Luis Manuel Alvarez, Paula Ali, Jorge Martinez, Luis Angel Batista, Luis Daniel Ventura, Maikol Villa Puey, Oscar Ibarra, Jorge Acosta, Mark O'Halloran. (Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • Jumanji The Next Level

    Box Office: 'Jumanji 2' Kicks Off Overseas With $52 Million as 'Frozen 2' Powers Toward $1 Billion

    Disney’s “Frozen 2” skated past international box office competition again as the animated sequel propels toward the billion-dollar mark globally. “Frozen 2” generated another $90 million from 48 foreign territories, boosting its worldwide weekend haul to $124.9 million. After three weekends in theaters, Disney’s musical follow-up has made $919.7 million and should cross $1 billion [...]

  • Lily James

    Lily James Delivers Masterclass in Charm in Macao

    British actor, Lily James delivered a masterclass in charm and good humor at a seminar on Sunday at the International Film Festival and Awards Macao. Questioned on stage by one of the festival’s senior programmers, James brightly chatted her way through eight years of a screen career that has taken her from “Downton Abbey” to [...]

  • Avengers Endgame Lion King Frozen 2

    Disney Crushes Own Global Box Office Record With Historic $10 Billion

    Thanks to a record number of billion-dollar blockbusters, Disney has become the first studio in history to surpass $10 billion at the worldwide box office. Through Sunday, the studio has generated $3.28 billion in North America and $6.7 billion overseas for a global haul of $9.997 billion and is expected to officially cross the benchmark [...]

  • Takashi Miike

    Miike Takashi's Unusual Takes on Feminism and China

    Takashi Miike chuckles when you ask him if he’d called himself a feminist. “Maybe I’m not exactly, because when I use the word as a man, it feels like it might be condescending, or anti-woman,” he told Variety on the sidelines of the International Film Festival and Awards Macao, where his latest feature, the high-octane [...]

  • FAMILIAR FACE -- In Walt Disney

    Box Office: 'Frozen 2' Remains Victorious, 'Playmobil' Bombs

    “Frozen 2” dominated box office charts for the third weekend in a row as Disney’s animated sequel scored another $34.7 million in North America. Those ticket sales, a 60% decline from its massive Thanksgiving haul, boost its domestic tally to $337 million. “Frozen 2” earned $130 million in its inaugural outing and another $123 million [...]

  • Macao Project Market Participants

    ‘Dear Wormwood’ Claims Macao Project Market Prize

    Philippines director Dodo Dayao’s supernatural horror project “Dear Wormwood” claimed the top prize on Sunday at the IFFAM Project Market, part of the ongoing International Film Festival & Awards Macao. “Wormwood” is a tale of five women living together in a remote house in the forest, where a mystery illness strikes one of the quintet, [...]

  • International Film Festival and Awards Macao

    Macao Industry Debate: Streaming Not Done Reshaping Indie Film Business

    New viewing habits brought on by the rise of streaming have hastened the demise of the mid-budget American indie, changed the very definition of arthouse cinema, and shaken the indie distribution business. But theatrical is still here to stay, attendees of the Macao International Film Festival’s closed-door industry panels concluded Saturday. Panelists gathered to discuss [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content