It may have a Welsh director and Irish budget, but Viva, Paul Breathnach’s movie and Ireland’s submission to the 2015 Best Foreign Language Picture (where it made the December shortlist) is all Cuba. Set in Havana, Viva will transport you, the viewer, to a place that looks and feels as though time stopped when Castro came to power. Havana is alive, crumbling, derelict, but with dripping with an exotic beauty all its own. It’s also where Jesus, the young protagonist, struggles to make a living both as a hairdresser to older ladies who can never pay him full price for his services and as a wig-assistant to Mama, the older drag queen who is the main attraction of a gay club.
When Viva kicks off (and it does so rather quick), Mama learns that one of her performers has run off with all her wigs and is in need of a last-minute replacement for a double act. Enter Jesus who can barely perform and looks unconvincingly female in make-up, wig, and a dress, who chooses the name Viva after a fashion magazine seemingly modeled after Vogue. The other performers don’t offer much help and it seems as though this will be a retread of a young man trying to prove himself to other more seasoned drag queens (and having to confront a more bitter performer, or the Queen Bee herself once his reputation and marquee value rises. Viva offers a left turn right after Viva’s debut as a “new discovery”, and does so in the most clever of ways. An older man is seen sitting at the bar admiring the drag queens. Because it’s Viva’s turn to go out on stage Mama and the others advise her to be friendly with the customers, to get up close and personal to insure tips (and her own place onstage). Viva agrees, and when she gets up close to the older man at the bar he gets violent, punches Viva in the face, and has to be thrown out.
You see, Viva just met her own father.
Angel is a man who’s been in jail since Jesus was a baby. Jesus always wanted to meet him, just not in this way. Once he returns home Angel is belligerent, aggressive, even confrontational. A thorny relationship starts and stops several times before it finally seems to take a groove of its own. The catch is, Angel doesn’t want Jesus to be performing at a gay club. He’s okay with Jesus being gay; he just wants him to be masculine. Jesus, wanting to have a relationship with Angel, rejects Mama’s offer to come back to the club and decides to wing it out. Perhaps he will eventually leave, and let Jesus continue with his life.
But Breathnach has several more tricks up his sleeve, and here is where Viva really opens up to the audience. A couple of subplots involving Jesus’ frenemy Cecilia seem tacked on at first but are crucial to the development of the plot: her sexual dalliance with a would-be macho boxer Javier lead Jesus to audition successfully, but once he demands she not use his place as a launchpad for sex she is the one who informs Angel of where he could find Jesus. Jesus himself, stripped of his drag persona, sees himself having to go to extremes to make money since Angel himself can’t find a job and is wallowing in self pity because of a failed life. It’s here where you really feel the sheer isolation Jesus feels, cornered and unable to find any work, and you long for him speak up for himself and take the stage once again.
Viva shines not just in the powerhouse performances of Hector Medina, Jorge Perrugoria, and Luis Alberto Garcia as Jesus, Angel, and Mama, respectively, but also in the emotional impact of the songs themselves, which become the driving focus of Viva’s message. The finale is overwhelming, shattering, and a total triumph of storytelling where everything comes together into one transcendental climax. Finding one’s place in the world and self-acceptance through the medium of art never looked and sounded more raw and compelling. Viva is a watershed LGBT movie that has to be experienced. It can all be summarized in a quote Mama makes late in the movie: “Why is everyone on this island addicted to this goddamn drama?” She should know. To experience drama is to live, and like all drag performers, they channel all the pain and anguish of life itself onto the audience for a couple of dollar bills.