Richard Drumm checks out Viva, which screened at this year’s GAZE International LGBT Film Festival
Written, directed and produced with Irish talent, Viva explores the Cuban drag scene and one struggling young performer in particular, Jesus (Héctor Medina), who goes on to become the titular Viva. Struggling to make ends meet with his occasional hair-dressing clients, and little to do day-to-day except give his friend use of his apartment so she and her boyfriend can have sex, Jesus gravitates more and more toward the local drag club and the dysfunctional family of sorts that it represents. Led by Mama (Luis Alberto García), who Jesus styles wigs for, the various acid-tongued drag queens show our protagonist a strength and confidence which he feels is lacking in his own life; surrounded as he is by aggressively macho bravado and the ghost of his father, Angel’s (Jorge Perugorría) own toxic masculinity. Thought to be in prison for killing a man, the famed local boxer (who walked out on Jesus and his mother when he was only a child) suddenly returns one day while Viva is performing. Disgusted at the effeminacy and what he perceives as his son’s weakness he drunkenly assaults him yet still insists on living with Jesus and controlling his life. Most drastically, he bans Jesus from returning to the club or ever performing again. As his father spirals further into drunken oblivion and Jesus is forced to turn to more drastic avenues to be able to feed himself and his father, tensions in the household rise.
Despite the setting, this still in many ways remains recognisably Irish. From the constant shots of rain-pelted grey buildings, to the local ‘auld-one’ Jesus visits regularly, not to mention the occasional colloquialism slipping into the subtitles (I’m convinced using the phrase “cleaning her box” as a way of describing gynaecological hygiene is a distinctly Irish one and would be curious to know if that particular subtitle is altered from country to country), the film still retains fragments of home. Indeed, as Mark O’Halloran confirmed in the post-screening Q&A, the story itself of a young gay man living in a nominally conservative society and trying to deal and reconcile with his estranged father could just as easily have been set here.
Speaking of that aforementioned colloquialism, it’s worth saying up front that (however that above synopsis makes the film sound) this is a very funny film. The majority of the humour, if not all of it, comes from the drag artists themselves; the dynamics of their interactions akin to that of a particularly vulgar and thunderously bitchy set of old housewives gossiping and passing judgement on all and any who dare enter their sphere of notice. It’s partially for this reason that the film really comes alive when it fully immerses itself in the drag scene and explores it in all its hazily-lit glory. This is especially true of the performances, a series of highly melodramatic lip-syncs (often with real tears), they make for not only an unassailable soundtrack but also visually engaging, fun and (when narratively appropriate) even dramatically satisfying set-pieces. Think the ‘Club Silencio’ scene from Mulholland Drive but with less emphasis on freaking you out and more on entertaining you.
Owing to the strength of that side of the film, it’s disappointing to report that the more conventionally dramatic side of the story fails to engage quite as well. Despite being the backbone of the film and handled better than it could be in similar films, the narrative with Angel can’t help but (literally, given the plot) close off the more vibrant and interesting club antics to us. It still deserves some praise; the un-remarkability of their troubled relationship is in many ways what makes it noteworthy. It feels real and messy and, despite how negatively it’s affecting Jesus’ life, it never becomes this all-consuming force of dramatic nature that drowns the story. It’s presented quite believably, as an obstacle, one he lives his life around and has to deal with day-to-day.
What truly lets it down is how formulaic both the ultimate resolution and the story beats it hits to get there, are. Spoilers ahoy but as the film goes on we learn Jesus’ father was let out of prison early owing to severe and untreatable cancer. From there you can guess exactly everything that happens, right up to him showing up at the club for Viva’s big show-stopping performance as she finally comes fully into her own, and him being proud of his son for it. It’s a pity as the film had toed a nice line at making their troubled dynamic true to life while also managing to make this drunken, abusive bigot seem partially sympathetic without letting you forget he’s an unrepentant asshole. That nuance is gradually eroded away as we move toward a resolution that never feels fully earned and could certainly have been more satisfying. That said, in keeping with the film’s strength, Viva’s final performance, fuelled by grief and anger is suitably enthralling.
In other areas the film fairs well. Having already mentioned the fantastic soundtrack, the actual score is less remarkable but has a nice, subtle, authentic feel to it that anchors the film’s setting without feeling intrusive or stereotypical. Visually too, the film is strong. One character remarks that where they’re living is “the most beautiful slum in the world” and it’s hard to argue the point given how the film photographs the urban landscape. Urban decay can often be aesthetically striking but even more so here where it’s being applied to the familiar architecture and faded splashes of colour that the Havanan landscape is recognisable for.
While the film may be less than stellar in its main dramatic thrust, that doesn’t detract from the stronger elements that make it well worth a watch. When it works, it’s a funny, occasionally sad, visually and aurally vibrant and bombastic affair with an acid tongue and genuinely funny albeit bleak sense of humour. Decidedly the best Irish feature you’re likely to see about Cuban drag queens in the immediate future.
Viva screened on Friday, 29th July as part of the GAZE International LGBT Film Festival
Viva is released in Irish cinemas on 19th August.