‘Viva’ explores the world of a Havana drag club

Hector Medina in “Viva”
Hector Medina in “Viva” Magnolia Pictures

With most Irish films shot in English, the Emerald Isle hasn’t had many opportunities to compete in best foreign language film Academy Award.

There have been only four submissions, to be precise, with two in Irish, one in Serbo-Croatian and the latest, Viva, shot entirely in Spanish. (None has made it as far as actually being nominated, but Viva — along with eight other films — made the Academy’s short list in December.)

Shot in Cuba, an island of a very different sort, and set in Havana’s slums, the film is the story of Jesus (Hector Medina), an impoverished young hairdresser.

Among his regular clients is Mama (Luis Alberto García), the maternal — er, paternal — proprietor of a seedy drag club, where men in makeup and women’s clothing lip-sync to vintage torch songs for an audience of randy tourists and local drunks. Jesus tends to the many wigs used by the club’s performers, while wondering what it would be like to join them.

After an employee is dismissed for theft, Jesus is given a tryout, and he turns out to be not bad.

The other performers are older and cynical, whereas Jesus — who in drag looks a bit like Audrey Hepburn — has the youth and passion, or perhaps desperation, of a newcomer. Jesus is trying to avoid falling into prostitution.

Soon, however, Jesus’s estranged father (Jorge Perugorría), an embittered, alcoholic former boxer, shows up, moving in with Jesus and demanding that he quit the club. At this point, the film becomes less about the dashed dreams of a would-be drag performer than the repair of a badly damaged relationship.

The story is slightly melodramatic, but director Paddy Breathnach finds ways to make it surprisingly moving at times, in the same way that he makes the Havana slums look paradoxically beautiful. Medina has a sweet, unforced screen presence, and holds our attention even when he is not performing at the club (but especially then).

Viva — Jesus’s stage name, which comes from the Spanish verb “to live” — is, like its hero, a small, slender thing. But it is also, like Jesus, defiantly alive.

In Spanish with English subtitles

Exclusive: Angelika Dallas


(out of five)

Director: Paddy Breathnach

Cast: Hector Medina, Luis Alberto Garcia

Rated: R (strong language, brief graphic nudity, sex scenes, some punching)

Running time: 100 min.