dir. Paddy Breathnach
written by: Mark O’Halloran
starring: Héctor Medina, Jorge Perugorría, Luis Alberto García
3 out of 4 stars
Father/son relations are difficult enough when there is understanding and shared interests. When the son is an aspiring drag queen and the father is a recently released convict and former boxer, the pair might as well be speaking different languages. In the Spanish language Viva, oddly enough Ireland’s foreign language Oscar submission for 2015, we find this mismatched family. Written and directed by Irish men about a Cuban family, a touching story is produced.
Upon Jesus’s (Héctor Medina) breakout drag performance, Viva, his drag persona, wanders into the ecstatic audience wearing a white gown to flirt and lip sync his way to tips. Reaching an intriguing man at the bar, Jesus/Viva is greeted by a lip-splitting punch from his until then absent father Angel (Jorge Perugorría). To add to his bruised face, Jesus finds that his father has returned to his family apartment, until then solely occupied by Jesus, and Angel is ready to demonstrate his alpha male status. Torn between his new found love of performing and the ample profit from it and the wishes of his father to never perform again, Jesus must determine how to make money and appease his volatile father, himself incapable of pulling in funds.
Though directed masterfully by Paddy Breathnach, the script written by actor Mark O’Halloran plays not unlike a date between an Irish family drama and the queens of Paris is Burning, a classification I do not intend as negative. The script is not poorly written, but the amount of dialogue consisting of “No sé”s is extraordinary. The story is nicely formatted if unsurprising; any twist is the plot is followed by thoughts of “Saw that one coming”. This feels more like a movie that was made in the early 90s than one hitting theaters in 2016, but maybe Ireland is just way behind the times.
Héctor Medina and Jorge Perugorría nicely embody their characters. Their physical presence is so dichotomous, from body size to demeanor to their movement, that kinship is hardly believable. Medina is a waif of a man; he looks much more on the boy side of mahood. His hushed tone is broken strikingly when he finally begins to stand up to his father. Not wanting to live for a man that had nothing to do with his upbringing, infantile amnesia wiping any memory of him, Medina exhibits great strength in the difficult situation. Perugorría is a mass of man, all sweat and disappointment. His Angel is a sad excuse for a man with enough twinkle of a soul beneath his broken exterior to impress. Most affecting is certainly the mother of Viva’s drag family, played by Luis Alberto García. Both in and out of his wears, Mama portrays an impenetrable force. Years of Cuban heteronormativity has worn on the caring man, and despite copious betrayals and violence he has assuredly encountered, García presents a man moving with love and passion.
The true star of the picture is Cuba. Mostly unknown to the banned Americans, this country provides unrealistically gorgeous backdrops. Angel was correct when he referred to his rundown neighborhood as the most beautiful slum in the world. Each backdrop is a painting worthy of oil replications; the sky itself is a Van Gogh by way of Havana. The opening relationship between the US and Cuba will provide change in the increasing time. The results are yet to be seen, but the attraction for the island nation is ample. Viva, though less thematically adventurous than expected, provides a portrait for a people and for a land, both attractive and terrifying in their own ways.