Jesus (Héctor Medina) works as a hair stylist for elderly women of Havana, Cuba by day, and styles the wigs of drag queens by night. When the chance comes for him to audition for the club, Jesus takes on the persona of Viva and takes to the stage. When his father, who Jesus has never met, turns up out of the blue, Jesus finds his life changing in ways he could not expect.
Selected as the Irish Foreign Language Entry to the Oscars – but not nominated in the end – Viva comes home to the Audi Dublin International Film Festival as the closing film. Penned by Irish actor/writer Mark O’Halloran, and with Irish director Paddy Breathnach behind the camera, Viva is a story of courage and choices that could really be set anywhere, so universal is its message and story.
Viva is the story of Héctor Medina’s character Jesus, but it could be the astory of any young person trying to make their way in a career their parents don’t approve of. Medina makes Jesus strong and kind, with a respect and understanding for all people, not only the ones within the gay or drag communities. Medina easily carries the film with a charismatic and warm performance, and his turn as drag queen Viva becomes ever more confident as the film progresses. Luis Alberto García plays the mother hen to the drag queens – affectionately known as Mama – and makes the character sensitive, protective and strong, as well as being a joy to watch both in drag and out. Jorge Perugorría takes on the rather ugly role of Jesus’ alcoholic and controlling father, but allows vulnerability and kindness to shine through the macho mask of the character, from time to time. The rest of the cast features Renata Maikel Machin Blanco, Luis Manuel Alvarez, Laura Alemán, Oscar Ibarra Napoles and writer Mark O’Halloran in a small but pivotal role.
Mark O’Halloran’s screenplay could be compared with Billy Elliot to some degree, but Viva is less about Jesus’ father accepting his choice to be a drag performer, but more about the father and son growing to know and understand one another, although boxing features heavily in both Billy Elliot and Viva. When stripped down, Viva is an incredibly simple story, but it is this simplicity that allows the actors to fill the film with emotion and life, and also what makes the film so universal and engaging. O’Halloran also manages to touch on issues facing young gay people, including forays into prostitution, but these are not lingered on – for better or worse – allowing the family story to take priority in the film.
Director Paddy Breathnach paces Viva well for the most part, although there are times when scenes seem to repeat themselves slightly, meaning the film becomes cumbersome at times. That said, however, the performances are rooted in reality and utterly engaging, with Héctor Medina being a revelation in the leading role, running the gamut of human emotion and still keeping the audience on his side.
In all, Viva is a simple story that is universal in its experience, message and emotion. The performances are strong and although the screenplay could have explored some issues more deeply, it is still energetic and fun, with Héctor Medina carrying the film ably.