Thursday, May 19, 2016

And ex-pug and his drag queen son

An Irish director and writer try their hands at Cuban melodrama.

On pedigree alone, Viva creates curiosity. Although set in a world populated by Cuban drag queens, Viva was directed and written by a couple of Irishmen, Paddy Breathnach and Mark O'Halloran. As if to heighten its already oddball genealogy, Viva became Ireland's entry in last year's foreign-language Oscar sweepstakes.

The movie didn't make the final cut, but that doesn't mean Viva (in Spanish with English subtitles) is without a winning mixture of grit and charm.

The story centers on Jesus (Hector Medina), a young gay hairdresser who lives in Havana's slums; Jesus tries to scrape by after the death of his mother.

In addition to his regular clientele, Jesus works on the wigs of Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia), who performs at and runs a drag club. Mama watches over the club's performers with a cynical but kind eye.

Eventually, Jesus gets the show-biz bug. He tries singing at the club. He wants to express himself by lip-synching songs that tend to be lush and melodramatic.

As it turns out, the club is all that stands between the impoverished Jesus and a life of prostitution.

Every plot needs a wild card to change its game.

Viva's arrives when Jesus's father turns up. A brutish drunk of an ex-boxer, Angel (Jorge Perugorria) hasn't seen his son since the boy was three years old. Angel has been in prison: He has no real authority over Jesus, but insists that his son stay away from the club.

Perugorria's Angel also generates a bit of pathos. Angel knows that he's squandered his life, and, in a late picture reveal, we learn why he decided to intrude on the life of a son he's never really known.

Much of the movie involves a father/son relationship that moves toward a predictable expression of sentiment, but that's pretty much the story of the movie: Viva can be unashamedly corny with touches of kitchen-sink realism and some irresistible, though rundown, Havana backdrops added for spice.

Viva follows the kind of conventional arc that we've seen many times before, and, no doubt will see many times again.

Why? Because sometimes, as is the case here, it actually works.

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