Irish director Paddy Breathnach has made his return after a long break. The man whose body of work involves the likes of Man about Dog (2004) and I Went Down (1997), has made a comeback with the unexpected concept of Viva (2015). With the screenwriting duties in the hands of Mark O’ Halloran of Adam & Paul (2004) and Garage (2007) fame, getting the two together is sure to deliver something special. An Irish production set in South America with not a word of English spoken throughout? It is sure to be something very interesting.
Jesus (Héctor Medina) is a young hairdresser trying to make ends meet in Havana. He also works in wig restoration for the local drag queen club. But when he sees the empowerment involved in their performances, he decides to audition. In the middle of a successful performance, Jesus is punched in the mouth by a drunk at the bar. It turns out the drunk is the young man’s father Angel (Jorge Perugorría), who left him when he was only 3 years old. Angel makes it clear that Jesus will no longer be a part of the club, and they are to earn money for themselves another way. Although Jesus resents his father at first for being a drunk and a waster, the two begin to gradually share a bond and realise that there are feelings shared which cause both men to bond in the most unlikeliest of ways.
When you look at who is running things behind the camera you would never have guessed that the entire production is mostly Irish based. The entire film is in Spanish and yet it actually makes you appreciate the work and effort put in by all involved, to make an Irish film in a foreign language. The portrayal of Jesus by Medina is both daring and inspirational. The brutish, macho nature of Angel in contrast with the almost fragile Jesus works well in establishing a road to discovery of his inner strengths. The development of both characters is staggering. Both revel in their respective roles to deliver something much more profound than what would be anticipated.
Stephen Rennicks provides us with the astonishing music throughout. The music Jesus performs with, under his new stage name ‘Viva’, is steeped in passion and vigour that perfectly personifies his new persona as someone who has suffered through homophobia and persecution, and proves to himself that he is more than what he thinks. The music continues through simple acoustic numbers as Jesus wanders the streets of Havana. The score brings out the vibrancy and colour which showcases the beauty of the city itself, and even works well as the Mise-en-scene between the streets, the club and Jesus’ apartment work wonderfully as if in separate worlds of their own.
The film seems to be O’ Halloran and Breathnach’s most challenging work to date, and it really shows. It is joyous, passionate, heart-rending and inspirational. Great performances, beautiful cinematography (thanks to the talents of Cathal Watters), colourful music, and an all-around sense of uplifting vitality. A film that Irish cinema would be proud to have as its own. Really great stuff.
Viva is out now on limited release