The lure of everything Cuba is strong. It’s in the news, on top of everyone’s travel list and in our movie theaters. But the recent films about Cuba aren't exports from the still-embargoed country. Most come from visiting filmmakers. Irish director Paddy Breathnach captures a gorgeous portrait of Cuba with his drama Viva, but it fails to deeply connect with the culture it portrays.
Fresh-faced hairdresser Jesus (Héctor Medina) holds onto dreams of singing in the spotlight of a drag club. On a lark, he auditions for the head of the club's talent roster, Mama (Luis Alberto García), who gives him a shot at decent money and building his stage persona as Viva. Just as things seem to be looking up, his long-lost boxer father Angel (Jorge Perugorría, one of the stars of Fresa y Chocolate) reappears a broken and angry man. Since the two both have claims to Jesus’ home, they must figure out a way to survive each other’s egos and Angel’s homophobia before it’s too late for reconciliation.
Outsider filmmakers often bring to their work an outsider's curiosity. Here, the imagery is gorgeous, as the lens stares at what most inhabitants don’t blink twice at: falling building façades, crumbling infrastructure and battered cars. Breathnach pays close attention to the lighting sources of Havana, outdated and sparse on the streets at night. He captures the light streaming out of shops, clubs and restaurants after the sun has gone down, illuminating the faces of neighbors, partygoers and tourists. The colors change from pale fluorescent green to neon blues and the warmth of the makeup mirrors backstage. Clouds paint the sky a different hue almost every day. The patchwork aesthetic fits the sewn-together livelihood Jesus carves out for himself.
As impressive as it looks, the melodrama is uncertain, like a worn-down car chugging along the streets of Centro Habana. Jesus is almost a tragic gay figure, from his job (hairdresser) to his dream (drag performer). The young actor portraying him either isn’t able or wasn’t given enough room to show the character's growth, and Mark O'Halloran's script only briefly touches on key aspects of Cuban culture that would shape Jesus' life, such as machismo and the shortages of food and housing.
Both Angel’s and Jesus’ personae are performances. One is a short-fuse tough guy looking for every chance to prove his strength after age and health have robbed him of the ring. The younger man is only beginning to discover and assert himself in the pecking order of a drag club. Both are rejected by society at large but find a temporary refuge in each other’s tenuous presence. Yet Viva doesn’t perform to its fullest. Despite its gorgeous views and a pair of strong turns from veteran Cuban actors Perugorría and García, the film doesn't connect to the heart of its central character. It’s in need of someone to tell us why we should stay in Cuba after the media circus has moved on.