'Viva': Seeking A Spot In Havana's Spotlight

May 2, 2016
Originally published on May 10, 2016 3:07 pm

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.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For decades, few films made in Cuba have found their way to U.S. theaters. But with diplomatic relations restored between the two countries, that is starting to change. A father-son drama called "Viva" just opened in New York, and critic Bob Mondello says it's about a Havana subculture that may be almost as unfamiliar to Cubans as to American.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Jesus is a delicately handsome young man who makes his living - a very small living - as a hairdresser for the performers at a transvestite club in Havana. The day we meet him, the drag performers are fighting, and one is on the way out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character, speaking Spanish).

(CROSSTALK)

MONDELLO: Which prompts Jesus to say he'd like to try performing himself. The club's proprietor, a burly drag queen known as Mama, wonders why.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA")

DANILO GARCIA: (As Mama, speaking Spanish).

HECTOR MEDINA: (As Jesus, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: "I don't know. It's strong."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA")

MEDINA: (As Jesus, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: "It's pretty."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA")

MEDINA: (As Jesus, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: But Jesus is also at loose ends - mother dead, dad in jail. I want something for me, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA")

MEDINA: (As Jesus, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: "I don't have anything..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA")

MEDINA: (As Jesus, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: "...Nobody..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA")

MEDINA: (As Jesus, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: "...No family."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA")

MEDINA: (As Jesus, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: So Mama lets him try out - stage name Viva, lip synching to a torch song he likes in a dress he makes himself. And he's not terrible.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA")

MEDINA: (As Jesus, singing in Spanish).

GARCIA: (As Mama, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: "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 as Viva...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA")

MEDINA: (As Jesus, singing in Spanish).

MONDELLO: ...He's in a white dress, pearls and a scarlet boa.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA")

MEDINA: (As Jesus, singing in Spanish).

MONDELLO: The audience finds him real all right. He's a knockout, and he gets knocked out by a drunk at the bar...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA")

MONDELLO: ...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 that they both have claims on. Complications ensue and a power struggle in the household, a struggle that gains complexity from a cleverly meta bit of casting.

Filmmaker Paddy Brannoch has placed newcomer Hector Medina as Jesus opposite one of Cuba's most celebrated actors, Jorge Perugorria, as his homophobic father. That's an intriguing bit of role-reversal since Perugorria became celebrated two decades ago by making his own debut as the gay lead in "Fresa Y Chocolate," "Strawberry And Chocolate," the Oscar-nominated film that is probably Cuba's best-known.

The two actors are well-paired here in the story that's perhaps over familiar - all 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. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.