“The most beautiful slum in the world.” Angel (Jorge Perugorria), an ailing, elderly boxer, describes Havana thus in Paddy Breathnach’s triumphant drama, and the film-makers work hard to prove him right.
Cathal Watters’s camera discovers balance in every peeling wall and crumbling colonial boulevard. Hector Medina, sympathetic as a hairdresser and aspiring drag queen, Jesus, could not wish for a more delicious backdrop. Few films this year have been so quietly seductive.
A brief synopsis suggests other roads wisely not taken. Jesus makes a poor living cutting old ladies’ hair and primping wigs for the drag artists at a nearby club. Desperate for money and intrigued by the entertainment, he auditions and – compared unfavourably to Donatella Versace – fast discovers this miming lark is not as easy as it looks.
Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia), the charismatic impresario of the revue, makes it clear there is nothing insincere about creative camp. This is one of several lessons Jesus will eventually take on board.
That story could easily have accommodated the broad strokes and loud noises of Baz Luhrmann, but unstoppable polymath Mark O'Halloran, co-creator of Adam & Paul and Garage, has written a more nuanced piece.
The core of the film concerns the relationship between Jesus and his father, Angel. The older man, recently released from prison, turns up at the club and forbids his son to perform. The kinder, more flexible Mama urges him to break free and follow his dreams.
There is a bit of Billy Elliot here – with the excellent Garcia as a convincing stand-in for Julie Walters – but, unlike Billy, Jesus is a grown man who desperately needs to assert himself. A calm presence with a sad face, he ends up at the rough end of every relationship. As Angel becomes sicker, the son takes on the role of parent. He is too forgiving of his close pal who boots him out of the flat to have sex. Most puzzlingly, he seems to have no urge for a romantic life of his own. (The only sex scene features a discreet cameo from the screenwriter.)
Most engaged viewers will want to give the lad a firm shake and urge him to stand up for himself. Of course, that's where the film's tension comes from. Viva is less boy-meets-boy than boy-meets-himself.
There are no huge surprises in the passage of the two key stories – struggles with dad and struggles with drag – but Breathnach, director of the much-loved I Went Down, confirms a gift for modulating the action towards a deserved big finish.
The first Irish film ever to be short-listed for the best foreign language Oscar comfortably justifies that honour.
Be sure to stay for the credits and a delightful little epilogue.