Father-son dynamics take on a Cuban flavor in the drag drama ‘Viva’


ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor

Life is hard in Cuba under the best of circumstances, but harder still for the gay community, where macho Latino culture predominates and Catholic guilt infuses every aspect of daily life. Jesus (Hector Medina) makes a living anyway, mostly as a hairdresser for old ladies and drag queens who perform at the local club. They tease and taunt poor Jesus, a naturally shy and good-natured kid who secretly longs to be in the spotlight as a performer. When one problem queen drops out, Jesus — now Viva — gets his shot at what passes for stardom in the Havana gayborhood.

It’s slow going at first (he doesn’t know how to tuck, and his lip synchs are robotic), but he’s a fast study. Then, just as he seems to be making progress, back into his life comes Jesus’ long-absent dad Angel (Jorge Perugorria), a violent drunk whom he’s never met.

Screen shot 2016-06-02 at 9.47.04 AMThe trope of the struggling young man cowed but strengthened by the reunion with a father figure is a common one in gay-themed films, but also one familiar to many gay men in all cultures who have strained relationships with their fathers. Sexual orientation just provides another hurdle for the hero to overcome. Angel has a few lessons to teach Jesus about self-sufficiency; Jesus acts as an ambassador between dad’s heteronormative lifestyle and the broader world. If Cuba is finally going to enter the 21st century, it will have to start at home.

But clichés can be effective, especially when handled with sensitivity or creativity, as Viva does. Angel could have been a two-dimensional brute, spewing hateful epithets and disparaging his son’s talents. But the film is smarter than that, fleshing out the relationships with unexpected side-alleys, including bitchy comedy and fierce moments where blood trumps hard feelings, all without turning to mawkish melodrama. It doesn’t project its tragedy, opting for subtlety and ambiguity.

It’s further unusual in that this Spanish-language film is written (Mark O’Halloran), directed (Paddy Breathnach) and produced by Irishmen. They bring a Full Monty-esque scrappiness to the production, with intriguing camerawork and lots of unspoken dynamics — between father and son, man and woman, abuser and victim.

Populated with authentic, gritty settings and colorful characters — among them Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia), head of the drag club, as well as the diverse, shady queens he oversees — Viva feels both political and human. With Gay Pride Month underway just as American-Cuban relations thaw, it’s a welcome reminder that parades only accomplish so much; hearts are won over one relationship at a time.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 3, 2016.