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Viva! Film Review

The island of Cuba is a hidden time capsule lost in the Northern Caribbean. Its natural beauty is incomprehensible to some– a land with vibrant culture bursting at the seams and beach shores of sugar-fine sand, yet stuck inside its own paradox. An island overtaken by crumbled down infrastructure and poverty, leaving its inhabitants to be choked by the hands of Communism. Irish director Paddy Breathnack captures the somber reality of the fallen island while combining it with a beautiful storyline of frustration and conflict that’s found within the journey of acceptance of sexuality and one’s true self.

The main character Jesus, played by fresh actor Héctor Medina, finds himself at a crossroads, living in Habana where he works cutting hair for the elder women, and grooming wigs for a local drag queen business. However, unsatisfied with the current state of his life, he dreams of one day taking the stage for himself. When he is given the opportunity by “Mama,” played by Luis Alberto Garcia, he faces a harsh introduction into the drag queen world where he meets his estranged father Angel (Jorge Perugorriá), of over 15 years broken, and full of frustration and anger. Angel, a now alcoholic retired boxer, is the perfect depiction of “machismo” culture– a man overly injected with masculine pride and homophobia towards his own son. Together, Angel and Jesus deal with mass conflict through their journey of reconciliation and acceptance of each other's differences. The film showcases the dramatic performances of Jesus and Angel by displaying their raw emotions on their sleeves for the audience to take in. Jesus plays the role of a gay hairdresser plagued with the melancholy of struggling to come to terms with his homophobic father who meets his vulnerability with fire.

Throughout the movie, we see how both Jesus and Angel grow simultaneously, becoming dynamic characters as they accept each other for who they truly are at their core. Jesus comes to understand the fact that he must live his own life for himself, and therefore release the shame that he has for so long dealt with, living his own truth regardless of others' perception or opinions of him. At the same time, however, we see Angel grow from an extremely stubborn closed off alpha man to a man who finally allows help from others and ultimately comes to terms with his son's true persona. Paddy Breathnack expertly managed to develop these characters into the plotline while also bringing to light many other socio-economic issues that plague the island. He touches upon the mass poverty the island faces and the Cuban mentality- you must do what it takes to survive. Whether that be Jesus sneaking behind his father’s back to perform or the extreme of selling his own body to provide dinner.

The cinematography is as beautiful as the actor’s performances, capturing the raw beauty of Cuba while also showcasing its destroyed remains. It features wide pan shots of the Cuban slums, crumbled, worn down buildings and streets, and overgrown foliage laces the edges of streets. The shots feature a faded out, bleak color palette of browns and nudes, along with green and similar complementary cool tones that are symbolic of both Cuba and Jesus. This is directly contradicted by the bright bold colors and lights that saturate the stage where the drag queens leave their mark, almost an oxymoron for who Jesus represents, a bleak exterior that encapsulates a colorful and loud interior.

Overall, the film Viva! manages to take its viewers on a 100-minute journey that tells a unique storyline based in a country under a communist regime. Unlike most Cuban based films, which are often a foundation for heavy political commentary, this film diverts from the status quo and manages to bring issues such as gender and sexuality to light– something that is not discussed enough in Hispanic culture. It perfectly captures humans in their most authentic forms, relationships that are usually dealt with behind closed doors are put on a screen for all to observe and hopefully gather a better understanding and appreciation of such. Viva! in my opinion, is an exceptional melodramatic film from the island of Cuba that manages to invoke empathy from their audience in a way that allows them to connect with those who may have experienced any form of similar issues in their own personal lives ultimately creating a powerful experience.

Photo sources: All photos shot and edited by Lola Rivero

2019 Havana, Cuba

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