FILM REVIEW: In “Viva” a young Cuban finds his lip-synced voice

This Havana-set drama from an Irish director was shortlisted for last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar

There are a lot of things to like about “Viva.” It’s a stirring tale of personal empowerment, a vibrant portrait of life in the slums of Havana, and a moving portrayal of forgiveness. And I’ll get to all those things. But the movie, or rather its American distributor, commits one of my pet peeves.

This is a movie about a gay Cuban hairdresser who becomes a drag performer. All of the Spanish-language dialogue spoken is subtitled in English, but none of the sung (or lip-synced) lyrics are. This is something that crops up in foreign films regularly, and in this instance it’s especially annoying, since several key dramatic moments occur on stage as a character performs to a song. The words in that song are probably quite meaningful in the context of the story. But those of us who don’t comprehend Spanish will never know. (And, yes, of course, I should just learn Spanish, but that’s beside the point…)

Héctor Medina as Jesus/Viva in "Viva."

Héctor Medina as Jesus/Viva in “Viva.”

Ok, rant over. Even with that completely avoidable lapse, “Viva” is an entertaining, inspiring flick, capably helmed by Irish director Paddy Breathnach. (Only in today’s globalized film universe could a Spanish-speaking movie set and filmed in Cuba be the Irish submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, which “Viva” was last year.) Breathnach’s previous credits include the psilocybin-themed horror flick “Shrooms,” so it would’ve been hard to guess that he was capable of this level of sensitive storytelling.

Jesus (Héctor Medina) struggles to get by cutting the hair of old ladies and styling the wigs of the performers at the local drag club. To earn some extra cash, he tries his hand at performing, and despite a shaky debut, he might have a future with it. But when his father, an ex-boxer who abandoned Jesus when he was three, gets out of prison and shows up on Jesus’ doorstep, things get complicated. In fact, he doesn’t literally show up on the doorstep, he shows up at the club and introduces himself by socking his son in the jaw.

Dad’s an unrepentant homophobe and a nasty drunk, and his presence forces Jesus to choose between his adoptive family of tough, catty, but loving queens and the blood relation who never did anything for him but leave. The decision is more complicated than you’d expect, though, especially when Dad’s health begins to decline.

“Viva” sails smoothly over some troubled waters, including times when Jesus is forced into prostitution to pay the rent. Too smoothly, perhaps—the movie’s version of Havana’s mean streets is about as gritty as the Bombay ghettos were in “Slumdog Millionaire.” Which is to say, Breathnach presents a reasonable facsimile of desperate poverty, but doesn’t push things beyond the bounds of a feel-good crowd-pleaser.

Playing it safe keeps “Viva” from being a great film, but it’s still a worthwhile one. The personal uplift and self-confidence of an outsider figure, enabled by the discovery of an artistic outlet, isn’t the most breakthrough topic for an indie film. But it’s one that we really can’t have too much of. Now, if they’d just let us know what the Hell they’re singing about!

(99 minutes, rated R, opens Friday, May 27, at Regal Fox Tower) GRADE: B


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