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When everything is for sale, what's the value of love? Jesus does make up for a troupe of drag performers in Havana, but dreams of being a performer. When he finally gets his chance to be on stage, a stranger emerges from the crowd and punches him in the face. The stranger is his father Angel, a former boxer, who has been absent from his life for 15 years. As father and son clash over their opposing expectations of each other, Viva becomes a love story as the men struggle to understand one another and become a family again.
In the 1970s, when I lived in Old San Juan (Puerto Rico), there was a black, round transvestite known as Lorena, who performed at the club "Cabaret," where he was a sensation for a couple of months with his hyper-dramatic interpretations of songs like Roberta Flack's "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face". He knelt on the stage, prayed, pleaded, even wept a bit, never losing his sense of humor, nor hiding the effect of detachment which, in general, good transvestite shows produce. Then, about three decades later, living in La Habana, I realized that the local homosexual subculture survived in a bubble, with patterns of social behavior (ranging from partying to couple interaction) that referred me to times gone by, as a recycling of the 1950s at the close of the 20th century. These manifestations, as well as the bitchiness in relations, have, of course, not died on or off the island, and they persist along with the "urbanity" of the "gay" community (more selective and classist), but I found they were almost the rule in Cuba. These two memories combined in my head, when the Irish film "Viva" ended and Héctor Medina as Jesus, the hairdresser who chooses to be a transvestite, became a kind of La Lupe, crying, imploring, pulling curtains from the cabaret managed by Mama (Luis Alberto García), in a highly current story, if we only consider the homophobia that reigns in almost all contemporary societies and that is at the center of the movie. At the same time, in the script by Mark O'Halloran, the same man who wrote the remarkable "Garage" (2007), I perceived a certain "poofy fascination" with an old and decadent universe that cries out for renewal. If O'Halloran achieved a well-measured drama in the Irish countryside in "Garage," I think that in other people's territory he emphasized the exotic and lost in realism. Despite the attempt to truthfully show misery and the alternatives of a young man who, in the absence of the stage of a transvestite club, opts for prostitution, "Viva" is a syrupy portrait of the streets of Cuba (that "inner Havana," opposed to the better-off life of the privileged people of the island) and its dens (as opposed to the big, fancy cabarets with larger budgets). One can overlook the filmmakers' ecstasy with the old- fashioned spectacles of transvestites (by interpreters-actors who have always lived a marginal existence and suffered severe exploitation), but where "Viva" loses more effectiveness is in its melodramatic approach to the relationship between Jesus and his father (Jorge Perugorría), who suddenly breaks into the boy's life and opposes his purpose. There is enough material to incite tears and emotion, as in the best melodramas, with music that exaggerates the pain we already perceive in the good performances by Medina, Perugorría, García, Laura Alemán and Paula Alí. For that drama beyond moderation, "Viva" is enjoyed, but I suppose there must be followers of film aesthetics according to Bruce La Bruce, Larry Clark, Gaspar Noé and Gustavo Vinagre, who would have been grateful for something a bit more graphic in the approach to eroticism and violence that permeate "Viva".
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