Film Review: Viva (★★★)

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7Known for its vintage cars, prized cigars and salsa-infused nightlife, Havana has been the setting of choice for many a film. For Paddy Breathnach’s Viva however, Havana nights are all about the glitz, glamour and power ballads of the drag club. In this surprise gem of the 2015 Telluride Film Festival, a young man finds his voice and his family while singing nothing at all on that very stage.

That young man is Jesus (Héctor Medina), a kind soul with a knack for hairdressing. Living without his parents in the heart of the inner city, he uses his talents to make ends meet as a makeup artist and hairstylist at a local drag club. But Jesus becomes drawn to the stage himself, harboring dreams of becoming a drag performer. Eventually he gets his wish, as his mentor takes a chance on him and offers him a spot in the lineup. Though his nerves initially get the better of him, he gradually becomes comfortable on the stage. But his progress is abruptly halted one night, when a stranger from his past disrupts his performance. It turns out to be his long lost father Angel (Jorge Perugorría), who abandoned him 15 years earlier. With this sudden change of events, Jesus’ future becomes more uncertain than ever, as he forges a deeper understanding of both himself and this new relationship to his father.

Portraying Jesus and his aptly named drag persona Viva, newcomer Héctor Medina truly comes alive in this debut role. Characterized by his modern ambitions and often referred to as a “good boy” throughout the film, Medina fully conveys Jesus’ tenderness and his subsequent growth. By the film’s emotionally powerful ending, both the actor and character prove themselves to be a force to be reckoned with.

Admittedly, the filmmaking leading up to the conclusion isn’t as stirring as we’ve come to expect, limited by the simplicity of Jesus’ outlook (he doesn’t crave international fame for example). In contrast to other notable performance-centric films of recent years (such as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and The Wrestler) the camerawork and sound design lacks the formal experimentation to deliver the visceral “blood, sweat and tears” experience that makes these films so compelling.
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To cinematographer Cathal Watters’ credit though, Viva nicely avoids the washed out miserabilist aesthetic common to films set within Third World poverty. Instead, the exterior shots feel just as vibrant as those in the club, as noted by Angel who remarks “this is still the most beautiful slum in the world”. Furthermore, what the film lacks in stagebound high drama, it makes up for in the wonderful father-son reunion narrative. While the relationship is understandably tense at the start, the script leaves room for a common ground and understanding between Jesus and Angel, a macho former boxer. And watching their camaraderie develop is heartwarming to watch, handled with great nuance and depth of feeling by Medina and Perugorría.

Ultimately, this aspect correlates to the film’s biggest takeaway – the importance of family and community. From the old lady in need of a haircut, to the friend in need of a bed, Viva presents us with an array of people in Jesus’ life who are dependent on him and vice versa. Indeed, the message is one worth remembering. In the search to find our true self, we can’t forget the loved ones who make us who we are.

Viva is now playing in select theaters.