“Viva,” on its surface, is a warmly familiar film but perhaps a stereotypical one. It is a classic modern queer narrative, with the protagonist, Jesus (Hector Medina), trying to find his sense of self amidst the hazy excess and muted desperation of modern-day Havana. Tired of living aimlessly fixing old ladies’ hair and working odd jobs, he persuades Mama, his benefactress, to allow him to perform as a drag queen at her club. Just as he is getting started, however, his estranged father — an ex-boxer who has been in prison for the past 15 years after killing someone in a drunken brawl—shows up and punches him in the face.
If there’s anything more well-trodden than the gay coming-of-age story, it’s the conflict and eventual reconciliation between the gay son and his (often, as in this case, alcoholic and belligerent) father. Previously alone, Jesus must now make space for a man he’s never known in his cramped and dingy apartment; previously independent, he now finds himself beholden to his father’s orders to quit his drag performance. It’s a tried-and-true narrative: in the end, father and son learn more about each other and, with typical stoicism, find a way to love each other.
What makes “Viva” stand out is threefold: the uniqueness of its setting, its amazing cast and director Paddy Breathnach’s carefully wrought cinematography and attention to detail. Havana is a character in itself, with the contrasting shots between its hectic, stiflingly crowded streets and the dark expanse of the nightclub where Jesus works, reflecting his own internal struggle between his frustrated, repressed self and the drag identity that liberates him on stage. As Jesus, Hector Medina is spectacular; he carries himself precisely the way such a slightly desperate, uncertain young man would, with defensively curled shoulders but an air of vulnerability that speaks to his youth.
However, where Medina — and Jesus — really shines is when he is performing as Viva on stage. Indeed, the theatricality of drag is emphasized heavily here, where the lyrics to the songs are lip-synced by the performers, something that Breathnach has said was what fascinated him so much when he visited Havana nightclubs himself. As we watch Jesus mouthing the words to the songs, we don’t notice so much the incongruity between his silence and the powerful voice we hear as we see him fully embody the essence of the performance. Ironically, even as Jesus becomes Viva and puts on another identity, he also finds his truest self.
In the end, Jesus comes full circle. He is only able to move forward with his life after grappling with his unfulfilling childhood. His father, critically ill, watches Jesus perform and is able to finally accept his son for who he is. When he dies, we see Jesus washing his father’s body and putting on Viva’s costume simultaneously. There is a sense of catharsis for both the audience and Jesus as he cleanses his father even as he puts on his makeup and wig as Viva. In the former, he is accepting his past; in the latter, he is embracing his future. Jesus’ stage name, Viva, is particularly apt as he learns to live his own, best life.
“Viva” opens April 29 at Angelika Film Center.
Email Angelica Chong at [email protected]