I posted HE’s best of the first third of ’16 list too soon. Because I need to add Paddy Breathnach and Mark O’Halloran‘s Viva (Magnolia, 4.29), which I finally saw last night, to the roster. Yes, I’ve been delinquent. I should have seen Viva eight months ago when it played Telluride. But I’m on it now. This Irish-made Oscar submission (even though it’s set entirely in Havana and is spoken in Spanish) may follow a predictable course with a payoff you can see coming from a mile away, but it still does the trick.
Some films know how to turn the tumbler lock just so. This one does that, I swear. You might be suspicious of someone describing a formulaic pupa-into-a butterfly saga as fresh and enlivening, but these are the words that came to mind ten minutes after it began. Have I seen films like Viva before? Yes. But did I believe it, feel it, go with it? Yes. Breathnach’s direction has just the right finesse, O’Halloran’s script is skillfully honed and assured, you can feel and smell the Havana atmosphere in every frame, and the performances are completely persuasive and affecting.
It’s about Jesus (Hector Medina), a poor Havana hairdresser with a crew of close-knit friends (mostly drag performers plus an apparent boyfriend who hustles tourists). The plot is basically about how Jesus’s attempts to become a drag-lip-synch star are interrupted when his alcoholic, brutish father (Jorge Perugorría) moves into his apartment after being released from prison. This angry macho dickhead insists that Jesus not work in the club for the usual crap reasons (it’s dishonorable to be gay, effiminacy equals weakness), and for some curious, deep-seated emotional reason Jesus temporarily obliges.
Your first reaction when Perugorría shows up is “oh, no…this boozy asshole is going to hang around for the rest of the film?” I was asking myself why Jesus doesn’t just tell him to fuck off. But you gradually get past that, and bit by bit the no-bullshit current and a feeling of reluctant compassion starts to take hold, and the film slowly builds into something else.
Miami Herald critic Rene Rodriguez has pointed out that Medina and Perugorría “aren’t just playing combative father and son — they’re also mirrors for the generational differences and attitudes toward post-revolution Cuba.” Okay, but every son with an outside-the-box ambition has probably had to deal with this kind of resistance (perhaps not as brutish or alcoholic but certainly as obstinate) from his dad, and we all know that fathers can exert a strange hold for the saddest of reasons.
But Jesus eventually mans up, looks his father in the eye and follows his heart, and things work out in the end. And I’m telling you it all works.
Cheers to the supporting cast — Luis Alberto Garcia, Laura Aleman, Jorge Perugorría, Renata Maikel Machin Blanco, Luis Manuel Alvarez, Paula Andrea and Ali Rivera. Everyone hits their mark.
I don’t know what it means for Benicio del Toro to have cermoniously joined the Viva team as executive producer last September, but it’s cool that he did this.
HE’s re-assessment of the best seven films of the first third of 2016, in this order: Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester By The Sea; (2) Luca Guadagnino‘s A Bigger Splash; (3) Paddy Breathnach and Mark O’Halloran‘s Viva, (4) Robert Eggers‘ The Witch; (4) Gavin Hood‘s Eye in the Sky; (5) Karyn Kusama‘s The Invitation, and (6) Bob Nelson‘s The Confirmation.
I was thinking about throwing in Ben Wheatley‘s High-Rise, which I saw last September in Toronto, but it doesn’t pop until mid-May.