Telluride 2015 Review: ‘Viva’ is a Kind of Miracle

At first, Viva seems like it’s going to be about the struggle of gay drag singers in Cuba, which would be great. Put that out there for anyone else struggling with their identity in any region to be inspired. But Viva is actually doing something else though, against the backdrop of a gay, singing drag queen community in Cuba.

Jesus (Hector Medina) is about to get his start as a drag queen in his friends’ club, but the night of his first performance as Viva, a strange man punches him in the face. The man claims to be Jesus’s father, Angel (Jorge Perugorria), and he sort of invites himself to live with Jesus, and forbids him to perform anymore as Viva. 

I can only imagine that Jesus keeps Angel around in the interest of getting to know the father he never had, because Angel certainly doesn’t contribute anything to Jesus’s life. Not money, as Jesus still pays the bills by cutting hair and meeting up with johns. Angel does not accept his son being gay, let alone performing as a woman. 

You feel the oppressive tension that Angel brings to Jesus’s house. It’s bad enough when you’re a kid and you have to do what your parents say. Jesus is an adult so he doesn’t have to, but imagine some hostile, violent guy insinuating himself in your home. Standing up to him isn’t so easy, and Angel is violent. He is constantly boxing, whether at the gym or at home, just all bravado. Angel has nothing else, so he insults and bullies his son, down to berating Jesus’s cooking, and Angel’s mooching free meals to boot. 

What’s a kind of miracle about Viva is how it manages to soften Angel’s abrasive character. It certainly doesn’t pull any punches, as Angel still never accepts his son. He’ll judge anything Jesus does, from his natural preferences to his superficial choices. Yet just having Jesus stand up to him and triumph would be too simple. Effective and empowering, sure, but Viva has more on its mind. 

Forgiveness is a more profound idea. Can Jesus reclaim himself and still have a relationship with his father? When the viewer can reach the point where he or she sees Angel and doesn’t want to just get the hell away from him, that’s when you know writer Mark O’Halloran and director Paddy Breathnach were working on something deeper than they may have seemed to at first. 

Viva’s performance does get better by his final showstopper, and you’ll want to own the soundtrack of Spanish language crooner tunes. But Viva is more about fathers and sons than an underdog becoming a star. Viva gets to have it both ways, though, in a hard-hitting yet ultimately uplifting drama with great performances. 

Image via Treasure Entertainment

Fred Topel is a veteran journalist since 1999 and has written for CraveOnline since 2006. See Fred on the ground at Sundance, SXSW, Telluride or in Los Angeles and follow him on Twitter @FredTopel, Instagram @Ftopel.