'Viva': Telluride Review

Courtesy of Treasure Entertainment
Formulaic but moving coming-of-age tale set in Havana

Irish director Paddy Breathnach scrutinizes the world of drag nightclub performers in Havana in this Telluride crowdpleaser.

Along with high-profile world premieres and hits from other festivals, Telluride always showcases a few unknown films that quickly become hot tickets during the intense Labor Day movie marathon. One of the audience favorites at this year’s festival was an Irish-Cuban movie, Viva, that is a genuine crowd-pleaser likely to find an appreciative American audience. While this story of a gay young man’s reconciliation with his unsympathetic father is a familiar tale verging on the formulaic, the fresh setting and superb performances validate the audience’s rapture.

Jesus (Hector Medina) is a hairdresser who helps out at a nightclub showcasing drag performers. He lives a pretty desperate existence. His mother died years ago, and he hasn’t seen his father since he was a toddler. Jesus knows that his financial opportunities are limited, and he can see an unfortunate future as a hustler, like some of his other pals in the neighborhood. His mentor at the nightclub, Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia), encourages Jesus’ dream of becoming a performer, which is the only option that seems seductive to the boy. Matters take a melodramatic turn when Jesus’ father Angel (Jorge Perugorria), newly released from prison, appears one night at the nightclub and decides to move into his son’s cramped apartment.

The film then develops into a battle between two very different fathers, Angel and Mama, to claim parenting rights over Jesus. The macho Angel, a former boxer, is appalled by his son’s homosexuality and tries to squelch his ambition to perform in drag. Once the reason for Angel’s return visit is revealed — and it isn’t hard to guess the secret — it becomes clear that father and son will eventually arrive at forgiveness and reconciliation. A couple of hospital scenes late in the film verge on the maudlin.

Despite the predictable touches in the script by Mark O’Halloran, director Paddy Breathnach reveals a sensitive touch with the material. Breathnach told festival audiences that he became interested in the underground world of drag performers when he visited Havana in 1996. It may be surprising that this subculture flourished even under Castro, but it is more open today. The director captures the less touristy, grittier side of Havana in vividly detailed vignettes.

Breathnach also achieves a triumph with the actors. Medina is a young performer with soulful eyes and an uncanny ability to seem both masculine and feminine. He rivets our attention during every moment of Jesus’ tortured journey to self-realization. Garcia as the solicitous Mama exudes seen-it-all wisdom. Perugorria, who played a gay character in the early Cuban classic Strawberry and Chocolate, finds the reserves of tenderness and regret hiding beneath the brutal exterior of Angel. But all of the performances in this film are pitch perfect. Oscar winning actor Benicio Del Toro served as the film’s executive producer.

Musical selections in the nightclub are also spot-on. While the film’s bittersweet conclusion isn’t hard to see coming, it still packs an emotional wallop.

Cast: Hector Medina, Jorge Perugorria, Luis Alberto Garcia, Laura Aleman, Luis Manuel Alvarez

Director: Paddy Breathnach

Screenwriter: Mark O’Halloran

Producers: Rebecca O’Flanagan, Robert Walpole, Cathleen Dore, Nelson Navarro

Executive producer: Benicio Del Toro

Director of photography: Cathal Watters

Production designer: Paki Smith

Costume designer: Sofia Marques

Editor: Stephen O’Connell

Music: Stephen Rennicks

Casting: Libia Batista

No rating, 100 minutes