2016, R, 100 min. Directed by Paddy Breathnach. Starring Héctor Medina, Jorge Perugorría, Luis Alberto García, Renata Maikel Machin Blanco, Luis Manual Alvarez, Paula Andrea Ali Rivera, Laura Alemán, Mark O’Halloran.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., June 17, 2016
You can almost smell the layers of makeup and taste the cheap rum in the shabby Havana drag bar prominently featured in Viva. For all its bad lighting and secondhand decor, however, the nightclub is a place of refuge for the gender-bending performers who lip-sync for their lives nightly on its barren stage. For the tall, slightly built, baby-faced Jesús (Medina), the introverted gay hairdresser who barely makes ends meet by coiffing the entertainers’ wigs (along with hustling street tricks), graduating to this spotlight gives him the chance to passionately voice unspoken emotions by mouthing a torch song on one of the well-worn albums his mother left him as her only legacy. To be charitable, his act needs a little work. (Most likely, RuPaul would have politely asked him to sashay away.) “She doesn’t even know how to tuck properly,” a seasoned drag artiste sniffs offstage as Jesús/Viva (looking a lot like a Cuban Audrey Hepburn) makes a shaky debut. “They can see her cock from Cienfuegos.”
An Irish film with Spanish dialogue – a nifty juxtaposition in the international world of cinema, if ever there was one! – Viva depicts Jesús’ impoverished world with unflinching realness, from Cathal Watters’ drabbish cinematography to the excellent performances by the supporting cast, particularly Luis Alberto García’s fierce appearance as Mama, the veteran drag queen who shields her protégé with the roar of a mother lioness. The film’s central conflict arises when Jesús’ long-estranged father (Perugorría), a once-famous local boxer who abandoned his family years ago and was subsequently incarcerated for killing a man, is released from prison and suddenly intrudes into his son’s life(style), forbidding him from performing in the club after witnessing Viva’s act with nothing less than disgust. The macho dynamic at work in their relationship is clearly a cultural one, and it may be difficult for some audience members to translate easily. But even as the film’s melodrama starts to lay on as thick as a La Lupe ballad, Medina’s sensitive and luminous performance as a tarnished Latin angel who learns to spread his wings remains center stage, and rightly so. This young actor is good, very good in fact. Watching him become beautifully alive in Viva is this little gem’s greatest pleasure.