There are two identities at war with themselves in director Paddy Breathnach’s tender but uneven “Viva,” a queer-positive movie about drag queens, queer communities, and self-expression in the slums of Havana, and a father and son story about estrangement and reconciliation. In truth, these interwoven ideas should be complementary; a homophobic and domineering father, a gay and timid son and the young man’s discovery of a passionate creative outlet in the midst of bleak poverty and few opportunities: the cathartic escapism of drag expressiveness. The foundational elements have all the necessary ingredients for compelling conflict. But despite an expressive visual eye, a strong capacity to communicate empathy and good craft, the promising “Viva” is hampered by a predictable narrative overburdened with one too many cliches that divide the movie’s strengths. Its normcore story meets its unique queer-core sensibilities and both cancel each other out — or at least don’t add up as much as they should.
“Viva” takes place on the decaying streets of Havana, vibrantly captured in all their dilapidated beauty by cinematographer Cathal Watters; the faded colors, the chipped paint, the cracked cobblestones, and all the rest. And wandering the streets in search of himself is the young and lithe 18-year-old Jesus (Héctor Medina). Trying to avoid the gay sex trade most of his friends are forced to endure, Jesus cuts hair, mostly for an elderly clientele with little cash, to get by. He also fixes the lavish wigs for Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia), the she-boss of a local drag establishment and bar. Without a mother, father, or guidance, Jesus is directionless and perhaps a little spiritually lost; a dreamer who doesn’t know what he’s looking for.
Just as Jesus begins to discover what makes him feel alive has been right under his nose the whole time — getting on stage to perform in drag — much to the resent and risible scorn of the veteran queens on the circuit, his long-lost father, ex-boxer and convicted murderer Angel (Jorge Perugorría) appears out of nowhere to rain on his parade and give him a bruising smack to add insult to narrative injury.
Angel’s timing is not only super convenient, it slashes across and interrupts the more interesting and vivid drag queen, gay, and transgendered flavor of the movie in favor of a much more ordinary father and son story, and one that really doesn’t make much sense in practice.
The narrative tells us that Jesus lost his mother years ago and barely knew his father. “I never knew any different,” the streetwise teen remarks when asked what it was like growing up without a father figure. And yet, when the drunken, intolerant, asshole Angel appears — and commandeers his son’s house, booze and food to boot — the effeminate Jesus seems not only ridiculously accommodating to this abusive parent, he suddenly seems to long for the father figure the movie has told us the independent man never needed. Frustratingly, on top of all that, Angel gives Jesus absolutely zero reason to love him and yet he still does.
The brutish Angel has his problems, but they are of his own machismo making and he is largely unredeemable. An inveterate bastard who forbids his son to perform — which largely makes the drag scene disappear from the movie — father and son try and come to terms with each other. And as if right on cue, before Angel can even begin to understand his gay son, the former pugilist’s drinking and smoking reveals an terminal illness that takes the movie into a maudlin, “Terms Of Endearment”-esque direction.
There are further crucial problems along the way too. Apart from an impassioned closing performance that brings down the house with Jesus’ writhing in emotional pain with mascara tears running down his face, most of the drag performances in the movie are shot unremarkably. Jesus is supposed to be mediocre in his stage skills and slowly improving throughout the movie and impressing the clientele, but the otherwise convincing Héctor Medina can’t really lip-synch for shit at any point in the movie, nor are any of the performance scenes, save the last, his strong suit. There’s an awkward stiltedness to Medina’s stage presence even though drag is supposed to be the character’s spiritual sense of liberation. It’s not always overly pronounced, but its perceptible enough to mar many of the movie’s performance scenes. Breathnach seems to be aware of this as well, over-compensating and even hiding the inadequacies of the performance at times. The world and cast of characters of the drag scene is rich throughout the movie and yet their ultimate release on stage often underwhelms.
Apart from this odd, particular problem “Viva” just often feels far too familiar, predictable, and too eager to embrace the melodramatic. The disapproving dad who gets sick and then forgives his son (or relents to letting him perform, because fuck it, I’m dying) is a fairly cheap conceit and Angel doesn’t really come to terms with his son as much as he just has no choice (perhaps the point, but it still doesn’t feel right).
“Viva” becomes extremely maddening in the sense that it has so many promising elements going for it, but they never coalesce in a real way we haven’t seen in a dozen movies before. Medina and Garcia in particular, are strong performers, but the movie’s feel-good tendencies never quite connect in the emotionally honest manner it hopes to.
Havana makes a nice character in the film. Almost anywhere Breathnach points the camera there is cracked splendor to be found. The filmmaker also scores emotional points with shots of silent contemplation; Jesus staring off into the setting-sun distance, dreaming of a more fulfilling life. Stephen Rennicks’ score (he wrote the quirky music for “Frank”) is also quite beautiful, flecked with balsa-wood acoustic notes of deep longing and wistfulness.
While these beguiling qualities give the movie brief respite from its familiar conventions, they do not rescue it. “Viva,” which means live in Spanish, has some good ideas floating around in its balmy evening air. But it’s akin to going out on what feels like a magical evening that turns out to be rather uneventful and typical night. Jesus finally goes for broke in the film’s final dynamic musical sequence; pounding on his chest with rousing fervor singing a final cri du coeur for all the suffering he’s endured throughout. It’s an emotionally charged and even electrical sequence, but it sums up “Viva” well; a moving film that tries too hard to please and thus never truly satisfies. [C+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Telluride Film Festival.