Jorge Perugorría and Héctor Medina in Viva (Magnolia Pictures)
Movies about drag queens are primarily the domain of comedy, where the sight of male actors donning dresses and makeup has proved inherently funny from Nathan Lane in the farcical The Birdcage to the Australian trio in the road trip The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Drag queens put on a show, throw out catty comments and generally entertain. It is the rare film in which a man dresses as a woman is meant to evoke sadness, even though the state of most drag performers is rarely a comfortable one; notably, the most somber major film to chronicle drag queens was the documentary Paris Is Burning, a film in which many of the subjects suffered horrific tragedies after filming stopped. Viva may not reach the same level of despair as Paris is Burning, but it owes more to that 25-year-old documentary than to any fictional film where the mere sight of men in wigs and dresses is enough to provoke laughter.
Viva takes place in the slums of modern-day Cuba, a place still largely mired in the despair stemming from decades of communist rule. The modernization promised thanks to the thawing of relationships with the United States are still years away, and most of the residents dream of leaving the island for a more stable existence as they survive thanks to a day-to-day existence. One of these impoverished Cubans is Jesus (Héctor Medina), a young gay man who survives as a hairdresser, primarily to a troupe of drag queens. When Jesus begins to perform in drag as well, his newfound avocation is complicated by the return of his father Angel (Jorge Perugorría), an alcoholic boxer recently released from prison who refuses to allow his son to perform in drag, even though that provides him the only way to make enough money to support them both.
The heart of Viva is not Jesus discovering his love for performing in drag, although that is undoubtedly integral to the plot, but the burgeoning relationship between Jesus and the father he never knew. Much of their dynamic seems inevitable, given that the father is a macho former boxer and the son is a baby-faced hairdresser, but not everything about their relationship is predictable. The surprises depend less on plot than on character, in particular the complicated feelings that Jesus has to his father, despite just how reprehensible Angel was to Jesus and his late mother before he left, and how reprehensible Angel continues to be. While the screenplay takes a few predictable turns, as it must in order to move the film toward a proper conclusion, it still remains fascinating because none of the motivations are as neat and tidy as one would expect.
Despite the Cuban setting, the director and writer of Viva are both Irish (Paddy Breathnach and Mark O’Halloran, respectively), a small detail that points to the increasing western presence in Cuba as the country begins to reintegrate to the international community. What Breathnach and O’Halloran portray in Viva is a country analogous to its protagonist: finally coming to grips with a horrible past while discovering the first glimpses of a better future.
In theaters April 29
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