From Havana with glitter and love, it’s VIVA !

People walk all over Jesus, partially because he can’t fight back, somehow because he lets them. His best friend is a prostitute who shakes him down for money and hogs his measly apartment to service clients. People have an uncanny ability to not notice him when he walks in a room, unless they need him for something, of course. The gay, femmy son of a famous ex-boxer, Jesus makes ends meet turning the occasional trick and fixing the wigs of Havana transvestites who lip-synch ballads in nightclubs. One day he asks the head transvestite Mama to let him try “performing.”

– “Why do you want to do this?”
– “I don’t know. It’s strong. It’s pretty.”

Adopting the stage name “Viva,” Jesus finally finds the validation and creative outlet he so craves. He even manages to make a little pocket money, at least until his father returns from prison and beats him for his “tendencies.” Banned from Mama’s, Jesus returns to the streets to support himself and the newly-installed tyrant, who’s also dying of lung tumors.

I initially wasn’t sure what to make of VIVA (2015), a Spanish-language Irish production by Paddy Breathnach, a director who until now has made comedies and horror films almost exclusively. Most of this comes from the fact that the film seems to resolve Jesus’ entire character arc—from unwanted nobody to applauded transvestite performer—within the first thirty minutes only to begin a second arc with the introduction of his abusive, homophobic father. I remember musing that the second act felt like the film’s own sequel.

VIVA’s ingenuity, however, comes from how Breathnach combines these two disparate plot threads–Jesus’s search for self-identity and his reconciliation with his father–into a single one in the third act. Héctor Medina’s quietly-assured performance as Jesus proves the most remarkable feature of VIVA: he is equally capable of stealing a scene as his bombastic alter-ego and virtually disappearing into the background of a shot even when he’s held in close-up. His emotional outbursts feel genuine, necessary, even, but not forced.

VIVA [Magnolia Pictures] premiered at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival and is Ireland’s entry for the Foreign Film category at this year’s Oscars. It is currently being shown at Sundance. It will close the 2016 Audi Dublin Film Festival on February 28th. Film opens February 5th at the Angelika Film Center (New York) as well as Miami and Los Angeles, followed by a national release.