Irish director Paddy Breathnach's uncovers an authentic Cuba in "Viva," an emotion-filled drama that traverses familiar queer film territory.
Jesus (Hector Medina) is a young gay man who works as a hairdresser in Havana. When he is not styling the older ladies in his neighborhood, he fixes the wigs for Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia), the proprietor of a local drag club. Jesus intensely watches as Mama performs; he dreams of appearing on the club stage himself. Given how much others depend on him for favors and money, singing offers Jesus the one thing he can do for himself. So committed is he to this simple dream, Jesus often dances up the stairs in his apartment building, or sways in the window as he sings a song along with a power ballad by an older female Cuban singer.
When some drag queen drama gives Jesus an opportunity to perform, he initially struggles — not even tucking his genitals properly. Mama, the clichéd stage mother with a heart of gold, tells him not to worry about mouthing the words, but to perform with feeling so they mean something.
"Viva" is performed with considerable feeling once Jesus soon reunites with his long lost father Angel (Jorge Perugorria). A former boxer who abandoned Jesus when he was three — there is a rumor he went to jail for killing a man — Angel does not approve of Jesus working in the drag club. As they share Jesus' tiny apartment in "the most beautiful slum in the world," the father and son try to get along. The predictable tensions between the macho dad and his effeminate son play out in the film's slow middle act, which threatens to drag down this otherwise poignant character study.
However, "Viva" scores points for contrasting the characters' use of their bodies as expressions of their emotions. Angel's efforts to coach boxers and Jesus' desire to perform form their main desires. And the ensuing battle between pride, shame, and acceptance seems to be the basis for their drama. The problem is that it is mostly facile. "Viva" offers nothing new about macho Latin culture and homosexuality. Father and son have some good heart-to-heart discussions, but they often play off the idea of whether things would be better, or easier, if Jesus were straight.
Mama tries to get Jesus to live with him to give him a better life but the struggle between a "mother" and "father" figure is not the point. When Angel reveals his reason for his return, the melodramatic twist makes the film more engaging, but also more manipulative. The film includes several powerful moments--especially of Jesus performing--but Breathnach jerks tears at the same time.
To his credit, the filmmaker does not judge his characters (though it is obvious where his sympathies lie). The most interesting scenes involve Jesus caring for, protecting, and even defending his father at times that might not justify such behavior. Another shrewd choice Breathnach makes is not to subtitle the drag performers' songs; the incredible emotion is evidenced by the music alone. This decision allows non-Spanish-speaking viewers to concentrate on the actors' expressions and body language.
Also of note is how the director captures the rhythm of Jesus' life in the city, chronicling his poverty, and conveying his dignity, which comes into question when he resorts to prostitution to earn money he needs to live and care for his father.
Breathnach does well with his visual framing, showcasing Jesus often in doorways and windows, or following him, in a near-documentary fashion, as he walks through the streets. These scenes indicate as much about his character as his drag performances. And about those songs:
Breathnach does well with his visual framing, showcasing Jesus often in doorways and windows, or following him, in a near-documentary fashion, as he walks through the streets. These scenes indicate as much about his character as his drag performances. And about those songs: Jesus' final number is sensational.
"Viva" features strong performances by its three leads, all of whom are fully committed to their roles. Medina is remarkably expressive when he says nothing; his body language speaks volumes. Garcia is fabulous in his drag scenes and gives Mama more heart than mawkishness in men's clothes. Even Perugorria manages to transcend Angel's limitations by giving a nuanced performance of a man struggling to redeem and redefine himself.
All these strengths compensate for the film's obvious drama. Viewers who embrace Jesus' on his journey of transformation will best appreciate "Viva," but those looking for a film with more depth than heart will be disappointed.
"Viva" premiered this week at the Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.