An outsider can often offer unique insights into a culture or a way of life that is totally foreign to her or him. That outsider can make you see the world you take for granted in a whole new light, even if that light is imbued with the outsider’s own prejudices and misconceptions. Alas, you will find no such insight in the Irish-Cuban film Viva, directed by Paddy Breathnach and written by Mark O’Halloran. There is nothing particularly Cuban in the story they tell; it could have taken place anywhere in the world. And while one could defend its universality, Viva at times feels like a travelogue, a film born out of Breathnach’s fascination with Havana’s dilapidated, rundown beauty and rain-splattered streets to which he has imposed a meager, aimless tale about transvestites, macho men and strained father-son relationships. Far better films have been made in Cuba by Cubans about the challenges and struggles of that island’s LGBTQ community, such as Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s now dated Strawberry and Chocolate (1993) and Juan Carlos Cremata’s Chamaco (2010).
Viva starts promisingly, though: its first 20 minutes are so gritty, so tough, so in-your-face that the film first seems to have been inspired by one of Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s gritty semi-autobiographical novels like Dirty Havana Trilogy. Abandoned at the age of three by his father, a legendary boxer whose star faded too soon, and still living in the apartment he shared with his now defunct mother, Jesús (Héctor Medina) ekes a meager living as a hairdresser for his elderly neighbors (including a relative who promised Jesús’ mother she would take care of him in her absence) and as a wig stylist for the bitchy drag performers at a neighborhood cabaret run with a tender fist by Mama (Luis Alberto García in a stunningly subtle performance that turns the tables on the more macho roles he’s performed in such Cuban films as La vida es silbar and Espejuelos oscuros). Jesús’ childhood friend Cecilia (Laura Alemán) frequently asks for money and borrows his apartment for her sexual escapades with a local boxer who dreams of leaving Cuba for good. Everyone is out for him or herself in this dog-eat-dog world where past debts are rubbed in one’s face. Jesús is often referred to as a “good boy,” and as such he is easy prey.
Jesús has dreams of his own: to perform in Mama’s stage. Mama gives him a chance when one of the cabaret’s stars walks off in a hissy fit. Jesús’ debut performance as Viva, his artistic name, leaves a lot to be desired but Mama gives him a second chance. Jesús blows Mama and the public away with this second performance, until he is knocked to the ground by a drunk man who turns out to be his long estranged father, Ángel (Jorge Perugorría, in a role that is the complete opposite to his role as the flamboyant and sensitive Diego in Strawberry and Chocolate).
Recently released from prison, Ángel moves, uninvited, to Jesús’ apartment and forbids him from acting in the cabaret. At the same time, Ángel wants to reclaim his past glories and starts visiting his old haunting grounds. But his alcoholism and poor shape deny him that final shot at glory. Meanwhile, after reluctantly acquiescing to his father’s wishes, Jesús tries to make ends meet by doing what apparently every young man and woman, straight or gay, in desperate straits ends up doing in Cuba: prostituting himself to foreign tourists. A tiring cycle (for both characters and audience) of fight-make up-fight between father and son takes over the film’s second act until a rather clichéd plot twist borrowed directly from James Brook’s Terms of Endearment (1983) shifts the film into full-fledged melodrama.
And yet, Viva is strangely uninvolving. Even the drag shows feel lifeless at first, the backstage bickering among the artistes is far more compelling and entertaining (albeit stereotypically so). And while Breathnach and O’Halloran do address visually the island’s shortages of food and housing and the Cubans resilience to “resolver” regardless of the circumstances, these notions are never fully integrated into the story. They are just part of the landscape. Viva is deliberately a-political.
However, the film is valuable for one significant reason: it reintroduces two of Cuba’s greatest contemporary actors to a mainstream American audience: Jorge Perugorría, who out of the more than 50 films he’s starred in since Strawberry and Chocolate, only two have commercially screened in this country: Steven Soderbergh’s Che Parts I & II (Viva is executive produced by that film’s star Benicio del Toro); and García, who appeared in Soderbergh’s film as well, and in the zombie cult classic Juan of the Dead. Hopefully, now that relations between Cuba and this country seem to be improving, more American cinephiles should finally have access to the work these two great actors have done in Cuba. If anything, Viva should help open the door to more films made in Cuba by Cubans about Cuba.
Viva opens today at the Landmark Century Centre, 2828 N. Clark St., Chicago.