VIVA, Find Your Voice: Review

Héctor Medina in VIVA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy Magnolia

VIVA: Find Your Voice
Directed by Paddy Breathnach
Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed by Alina Oswald

Héctor Medina in VIVA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy Magnolia
Héctor Medina in VIVA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy Magnolia

[dropcap]“W[/dropcap]hy is everyone on this island addicted to drama?” Luis Alberto Garcia’s character, Mama, asks, rather rhetorically, in the new movie, VIVA, which could be described, at least in part, as a dramatic take on The Birdcage set in Havana, Cuba, and also as a journey of self-discovery, acceptance (and self-acceptance), and, ultimately, as a story of triumph.

Using drama, passion, and that inner fire and ardor so specific to the Latino community—and that come through so eloquently in the equally passionate music and performances that strike a chord with many of us—VIVA tells the story of Jesus (Héctor Medina) a young hairdresser who works in a Havana nightclub that showcases drag performances. While Jesus dreams of becoming a performer himself, he has no family to support him and meanwhile struggles to make ends meet. Fortunately, he finds a mentor in the owner of the nightclub, Mama, who encourages him to take the stage. “In the time you have [on stage], be fully yourself. It’s not about mouthing the words,” Mama tells Jesus. “You have to do them with feeling. Show us something real.” And yet, when he finally has the chance to be himself while performing on stage, his dream seems to be short-lived and his life is turned upside-down when his estranged father, Angel (Jorge Perugorria) comes back into his life. As a result, Jesus finds himself at a crossroads, faced with hard choices that could shape his life forever, for better or worse.

Medina gives a powerful, memorable and heartfelt performance, which the actor describes, as mentioned in a Tweet, as “a film necessary for everyone who wants to find their inner voice.” And in VIVA, Medina’s character does just that, in a most compelling way.

“I want something for myself, Mama,” Jesus tells his mentor when asked why he wants so badly to become a performer. “All my life I’ve been made to feel sorry for who I am,” Jesus continues, “and then, just stand[ing on stage] honest and strong. To sing out. I’[ve] never felt that before.”

At its core, VIVA tells a story about finding one’s true self and having the courage to show that true self to the world, but VIVA is much more than that. It also tells a passionate story of life and its struggles, of acceptance, and also of love. The emotional and unexpected story of love between a father and his son shines through, woven together in the life-changing journeys they each decide to ultimately take, journeys that bring them together, and also pull them apart.

VIVA has already received rave reviews—Indiewire calls it “an emotion-filled drama that uncovers anViva web authentic Cuba,” while The Guardian describes it as “vivid and fresh.” There is something fresh about VIVA, maybe in part, because it is set in Cuba, a country and an island that has been, in many ways, intriguing and yet out of reach for many, until recently. VIVA interlaces Jesus’s story with scenes of daily life as they unfold in Havana, Cuba, offering a glance into a way of living seemingly stuck in time, sketching out facets of life that might seem unfamiliar, and yet marked by struggles, laughter, drama and passion, feelings we all know too well.

HIV/AIDS, although not mentioned in the movie, has a subtle role, more as an underlying motif, a constant and intense threat. While it’s true that performers in some nightclubs, such as Havana’s Las Vegas Club, incorporate HIV and STD awareness messages in their exotic shows, unfortunately there is no trace of these kinds of messages or any other more direct references to HIV/AIDS in VIVA. Under the microscope, some scenes showing characters involved in risky sexual behaviors might hint at the connection between HIV and unsafe sex, but these messages are rather more implied, written between the lines. In that sense, HIV could be interpreted as part of the “social allegory” that Breathnach talks about.

Director Paddy Breathnach tells Filmmaker Magazine that VIVA captures “stories of pain and personal struggles” of drag performers, and, some would say, of people living on the island. When asked, at Sundance Film Festival, about the secret story of his film, Breathnach says, “There is, too, to some extent an element of social allegory at work in [VIVA]. It was a theme that our cast picked up on in rehearsal. It is perhaps the ‘secret’ they enjoyed playing the most.”

Nominated for the Irish Academy Award in Foreign Languages, VIVA opens in the U.S. theaters on April 29.

Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.