I’ve got a romantic soft spot for Cuba – rum, tobacco, sweltering beaches, grandiose machismo – but I also have a deep love and appreciation for drag queens which is why I was thrilled to attend the aGLIFF screening of Viva as a part of their 2016 monthly film series. Viva is the story of a young man living in Havana who does hair for the performers of a local drag nightclub, and what happens when his estranged father returns to live with him. The film got heavy at times, but between the richly textured visuals of the Havana slums and the powerful performances of Jorge Perugorría, Luis Alberto García, and Hector Medina, this movie had me captivated from start to finish.
We start by meeting Jesus, played by Hector Medina in a quiet, sensitive, and introspective way. He is an orphan – or, rather, his mother has passed and his father is good as dead, they say. Jesus is a hairdresser, and in addition fixes the wigs of the drag queens at the local cabaret. He is just dipping his toes into drag performance himself, mentored by the rough and passionate matron of the club, Mama (Luis Alberto García). The meager income he earns from hairdressing and performing at the nightclub are all that keep him from prostituting on the streets to survive. However, everything changes when his father (Jorge Perugorría), a respected boxer named Angel who has been in prison for killing a man, returns. Angel insists that he stop performing, and although you expect Jesus to try and break away from his father the two develop a deep, often painful, but ultimately touching relationship.
My favorite part of the movie was Mama. García fully embodies the grit, toughness, and emotional passion of the seasoned drag performer who has certainly seen her fair share of rough situations. She is the only character willing to stand up to Angel – an intimidating man clearly capable of deadly violence – never once breaking eye contact as she fiercely defends Jesus. That scene gave me chills. García’s passion translated on stage as well – I’d love to see a drag show as intense as the one that Mama gives.
Although the movie was shot in Havana with an all-Cuban cast, it’s actually an Irish film, produced by the Irish Film Board and RTE, along with Magnolia Pictures. An odd choice? Maybe. But director Paddy Breathnach’s talent spans many genres – he is known not only as an award-winning documentarian, but also as a cult horror filmmaker as well. Viva only adds to his repertoire and, in my opinion, might be his crowning achievement to date.
Viva will premiere in theaters April 29th, 2016.
See what’s next on aGLIFF’s monthly screening roster by visiting agliff.org/events.