For decades, few films made in Cuba have found their way to U.S. theaters. But with diplomatic relations restored between the two countries, this past weekend brought not one, but two. Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, the first Hollywood film to shoot on the island nation in decades, turns out to be a dispiriting, ineptly directed affair, about which the less said, the better.
But a father-son drama called Viva is lively enough to be an art-house hit, illuminating a Havana subculture that may be almost as unfamiliar to Cubans as to Americans.
It centers on Jesus (Héctor Medina) a delicately handsome young man who makes his living — a very small living — as a hairdresser for the performers at a transvestite club. The day we meet him, a cat-fight among the drag performers, leads to a departure, a theft of wigs, and an opportunity for Jesus, who's been hankering for a spot in the spotlight.
The club's proprietor, a burly drag queen known as Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia) wonders why, and Jesus responds that he needs the money, but also that he's at loose ends — mother dead, dad in jail — and that he wants something for himself.
So Mama let's him try out — his stage name, Viva — lip-syncing to a torch song he likes, in a dress he made himself. He's a little tentative, but not terrible.
"Practice, practice, practice," says Mama afterwards. "This isn't a charity. Show us something 'real' or we'll get someone else."
Next time Jesus goes out on stage he's in a white dress, pearls and a scarlet boa, and there's no question the audience finds him "real." He's a knockout. And he gets knocked out, by a drunk at the bar — a drunk he is horrified to learn, is his father, just released from jail and coming back to live with him in the family apartment they both have claims on.
Complications ensue, including a power struggle in the household that gains a bit of complexity from a cleverly 'meta' bit of casting. Irish filmmaker Paddy Breathnach has placed newcomer Medina, opposite one of Cuba's most celebrated actors, Jorge Perugorría, as his homophobic father, which qualifies as an intriguing bit of role-reversal. Perugorría became celebrated two decades ago by making his own debut as the gay lead in Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry & Chocolate), the Oscar-nominated film that is probably Cuba's best-known.
The two actors are well-paired here, in a story that's perhaps over-familiar — striking mostly conventional notes about identity and family — but that benefits enormously from its setting: the cobbled streets of Old Havana, where the colorful hues of antique cars and crumbling storefronts, brighten the grittier world they inhabit, much as Jesus wants to brighten the world around him, as Viva.