Starring: Hector Medina, Jorge Perugorría, Luis Alberto García, Laura Allemán
Director: Paddy Breathnach
Finally making its way to DVD recently, Viva is an Irish-made film about a drag queen in Cuba. The Havana we see is an unromantic one, in which the characters all dream of leaving its run-down streets for new lives in Miami or Europe. But for Jesus (Medina), an eighteen-year old hairdresser who fends for himself, his dreams are a little smaller. Having spent his entire life apologising for who he is, he simply wants to stand on a stage, empowered and unapologetic. But even this is to be denied to him.
Auditioning to perform in drag at a local club, Jesus is taken under the wing of Mama (Garcia), who sees great potential in the boy. But just as his star is beginning to rise under his drag name Viva, he is attacked by a customer mid-performance, who turns out to be his father Angel (Perugorría), returned from a fifteen year stint in prison. Violent and alcoholic, he moves into Jesus' apartment, refusing to allow his son to "parade his weakness" by performing in drag, but refusing to go out and work himself. Forced to find money for them both from somewhere, Jesus is soon forced into selling sex just to make ends meet. Complete opposites in their stiflingly small home together, the pair are both forced to confront their prejudices before they can be at peace with one another.
There are a lot of clichés in Viva, not least its frocked and sequined climax, but this is essentially a film about redemption. Jesus must find redemption from past oppression, while Angel must find it for his failings as a father. The two couldn't be more opposite from each other of course, with Jesus plucky, slender and effeminate while Angel is sluggish, stocky and brutish. Perugorría plays the father as a hoggish bully, whereas Medina gives a bold performance as the drag queen who simply wants what she deserves from life. From the moment Jesus first uses his friend's lipstick until his resplendent rebirth as the commanding Viva, Medina gives her a youthful thirst, one part hopeful, two parts furious.
Initially, Viva has great promise as the battle lines are drawn between the two polarised worlds. Headed up by the glittering and glorious Mama, the world of the drag club seems poised to trample all over Angel's hypermasculinised vision of how the world should be with six-inch sequined heels. But this isn't that movie. In fact, as Mama hurtles into Jesus' apartment to rescue him from the control of his father, it is the boy himself who refuses the help. It's not as simple as emancipation from oppression; this is about finding reconciliation, common ground and compromise. And while this story is more realistic than the out-and-out feel-good fist pump of a Priscilla-esque drag battle, it's also not as interesting.
Unfortunately, Viva begins to sag the moment its lead begins to lose hope. Carried before by his bubbly enthusiasm, the tone shifts steeply downward very quickly, leaving behind only a sprinkling of feathers in its wake. And each time there looks to be something to help us return to these former heights, Jesus refuses them, seeing more purpose in attempting to mend his rotting relationship with his father than with the others who love and care for him. And it's difficult to continue to care for a character who won't help themselves. As a result, the latter half of the film feels flat, laboured and slow.
Havana is depicted as a decaying urban sprawl, where past grandeur has been unsustained and left to fester. While not without a certain charm, the city is depicted as somewhere all its residents want to escape but are forced to live in for the rest of their lives. They seem resigned to their fate, just as Jesus is resigned to the fate of caring for his father. As a result, Viva is a strikingly downbeat film... possibly the most downbeat film about drag out there. So if you go into Viva expecting glitz, glamour and sass, this will clearly not be the film you're expecting.
OUT NOW ON DVD.