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Friday, December 9, 2016

The Tiny Beauty of Viva


Cuba. It’s almost impossible to hear the name of that country and not think of things that are not just big, but so large that their shadows loom darkly over history. The Cuban revolution, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, human rights violations and economic sanctions all spring to mind when the country is mentioned. These are events that shaped the 20th century and they all came from a tiny island with an outsized culture and importance. Today, in America, the country still breeds controversy. When Jay-Z visited Cuba a few years ago he was denounced by Cuban-American refugees. Colin Kapernick was recently lambasted for wearing a shirt of Malcolm X meeting Fidel Castro (he wore the shirt in Miami and somehow he didn’t foresee a problem). And of course President Obama’s reestablishing of diplomatic relationships as well as the baseball games and the Rolling Stones concert this year were huge, colossal events that rattled the Western Hemisphere.



Given Cuba’s history, it would be tempting when setting a film in 1970s Havana, to stand on a cinematic soapbox and scream one’s opinion at passers-by. It would be easy to insert a stock old man outside of the fruit shop sitting on a crate of mangoes reading a newspaper and ranting about that madman running the country into the ground. In movies set during World War II there’s often someone reading the newspaper or talking to a member of the armed forces or getting off the phone with the President or a general or the Fuhrer. Not in Viva. There are no letters from the front because the front is all around you and devoid of slick, rehearsed commentary. The film chooses to show you the political and economic blight without drumming you over the head with contrived monologues and chance meetings.

Instead you see Havana from the window of the main character’s, apartment. This is not the swinging Cuba of lore replete with rum and conga lines. This is Cuba after twenty years of living under an embargo imposed by the United States. The film doesn’t, however, show angry young men in coffee shops arguing their political ideals. Instead you see the difficulty Jesus’s clients have in paying for their hairdressing and the rice and beans he and his ex-con father have to eat everyday and the squalor of his decrepit apartment and the desperation his friend Cecilia feels to marry an abusive boxer who might be able to escape the island with his gloved fists. And never once does the film utter the name of the leader, that very real boogie man for whom the sun finally set just a few short weeks ago.

Jesus is an aspiring transvestite nightclub singer in macho 1970s Cuba. Despite the grand proportions of these facts the film retains its minimalism. Jesus only performs a couple of times throughout the entire film. Each time the performances are powerful, integral parts of the story. They are not window dressing to prop up a weak plot. Jesus’s life is depicted without being exploitative. There are no cheap laughs nor is there melodrama. His life and the lives of his fellow more-established performers aren’t easy, but they survive. They survive as people do when their backs are against the wall, when they are persecuted by their society, by macho culture, by a narrow minded father. They buck up and do what they have to do. Jesus doesn’t crumble when he finds that his cabinet doesn’t have a single speck of food in it. He walks out his front door, determined, and goes to the park to turn a trick. That’s his reality. That’s what most of us do (in our own way of course). We don’t have time to curl into a ball on the kitchen floor and cry or call a friend (if you have a friend or a phone) and deliver an emotional speech. Most of us grit our teeth and go get the job done.

Nested inside the Matryoshka dolls of Havana and poverty and the need to be accepted is the smallest, most beautiful thing of all: a father and son coming to terms with each other. Regardless of whether or not your relationship with your father was anything close to as bad as Jesus and his father’s was, the basic elements are relatable. Angel, Jesus’s father, is an ex-boxer and a drunkard who used to hit his mother. He abandoned his family when Jesus was three and then got sent to prison for manslaughter. Despite all of those horrible acts, Angel is redeemable because of the single shred of humanity left in him. He still has the paternalistic instinct to protect Jesus, albeit his attempts to do so are tragically misguided. He wants to toughen Jesus up; at one point he shadowboxes with him trying to get him to unleash his inner fighter, trying to get him to develop the fortitude it takes to survive. Parents, even some of the bad ones, want to see our strength to make sure that we’ll be able to take on this big, bad world that they have already managed to navigate. They want to make sure our wings are strong enough before they push us off the branch and demand we take flight.

Angel couldn’t see his son’s strength. He didn’t understand that for Jesus walking the streets and being himself was already a gigantic act of bravery. He didn’t understand how performing as a woman, showcasing his “weakness”, was going to make him any stronger. That’s the way of all fathers a thousand years over; they have a child that’s like them in so many ways but they can’t fathom the slight evolution that changes from one generation to the next. Until they do. In Viva the moment is huge, but the gesture, the revelation is small. Angel goes to a performance and watches his timid boy turn into a beautiful woman right before his eyes. The film doesn’t dwell on the moment, it doesn’t ruin the effect. In an instant, something clicks for Angel and that’s it. He says his son’s stage name, Viva, recognizing him for who he is for the first time. And then life moves on.

The most beautiful thing about Viva is how it manages to take a story with huge implications and make it small. It’s the kind of intimate, delicate smallness that makes one instantly lachrymal. Even as the weight of 20th century history bears down on him, Jesus unwittingly builds a life for himself. John Lennon said life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans, but that statement is somewhat of a falsity. It presupposes planning which is something for which survivalists have no time. Life is an accumulation of events that will happen whether or not you pay attention to them. Life happened in Castro’s Cuba and life is happening today in Aleppo and Yemen even amidst the horrors going on there. The tiny beauty, the only beauty, of humans trapped in these situations is their resiliency.

Maybe Viva is a complete act of fiction. Or maybe the filmmakers found a Cuban and untangled their story, working backwards from point B to point A, deciphering all the miniscule, tiny events that created a life. In actual fact the moments aren’t tiny at all; like a cell, each moment is buzzing with activity, with the essential building blocks of life. Everyday life-altering moments happen but they can be difficult to discern with our waking brain. Only when time has passed, when the moments are piled up one on top of the other, their exact shape hard to make out, only then can we see their import, the significance and the beauty that they hold.

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