Touching, Cuba-set ‘Viva’ overcomes melodramatic screenplay

Urban grit and heart-tugging melodrama don’t mix smoothly in “Viva,” a drama about a macho boxer and his gay son struggling to love each other in hard-luck Cuba. But the movie scores points for freshness with its Havana setting, and the emotional connections it depicts are undeniably moving.

Irish director Paddy Breathnach (“I Went Down”) got the idea for making the film from his visits to drag cabarets in Havana, where the passion and raw emotion onstage impressed him. Working from a screenplay by Mark O’Halloran, he aims to capture that romantic tone while presenting poverty in a realistic light. Generally, he accomplishes that.

In a section of Havana where everyone needs to hustle and dream, Jesus (Hector Medina) is young, gay and filled with drag-queen aspirations.

At home, he lip-synchs to diva-sung torch songs on records his dead mother left him. At the drag club where he styles wigs, he stands backstage with a look of sadness and longing as proprietor and top queen Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia) performs.

When an opening arises, Mama gives Jesus a shot. Appearing as Viva, a sensation with a beehive, Jesus delights the audience. But the moment ends with a punch in the face, thrown by a drunken customer. The assailant is Angel (Jorge Perugorria), Jesus’ long-absent father.

A former boxer fresh out of jail, Angel insists on playing a role in Jesus’ life. But with his homophobia, machismo, and alcoholic rages, he makes it hell.

At the local gym, however, Angel shows a personable side, and eventually he reveals heart and vulnerability. The two men slowly bond.
Jesus, who has always let others, including friend Cecilia (Laura Aleman), manipulate him, learns to stand up to his father.

Shallow, predictable and increasingly soapy, the story isn’t the movie’s strong point. The reason for Angel’s release from jail, which the film treats as a near-shocker, is quickly obvious.

Foremost a follow-your-dream crowd-pleaser, the movie doesn’t convince viewers that Jesus’ eventual triumph is truly at stake.
Yet it movie contains powerful emotional moments, and they feel genuine even when the plot turns maudlin. It doesn’t overly avoid harshness.

Jesus’ transformation is stirring.

Cinematographer Cathal Watters conveys the passion and energy of Havana, showing it filled with light and heat — from neon signs, car lights, cabaret crowds. As Jesus walks through the streets of his impoverished neighborhood, the movie has an almost-documentary quality.

While not a powerhouse actor, Medina expresses a goodness and longing that make Jesus instantly embraceable.

Veterans Perugorria and Garcia (whose Angel and Mama are father figures to Jesus) provide the heavy stuff, excellently. Clearly these characters have stories to tell, even if the screenplay doesn’t give them much chance to do so.

Three stars
Starring: Hector Medina, Jorge Perugorria. Luis Alberto Garcia, Laura Aleman
Written by: Mark O’Halloran
Directed by: Paddy Breathnach
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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