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Find your voice

Viva, shortlisted for the 2015 Foreign Language Film Oscar and an audience favourite at the Telluride Festival, is a genuine crowd-pleaser.

Poster image for VivaJesús (Héctor 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. Jesús knows that his financial opportunities are limited, and he can see an unfortunate future as a hustler.  His mentor at the nightclub, Mama (Luis Alberto García), encourages Jesús’s dream of becoming a performer, which is the only option that seems seductive to the boy.

Matters take a melodramatic turn when Jesús’s father Angel (Jorge Perugorría), 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 Jesús. 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 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.

Despite some predictable touches in the script by Mark O’Halloran, director Paddy Breathnach reveals a sensitive touch with the material, capturing 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 Jesús’s tortured journey to self-realization. García as the solicitous Mama exudes seen-it-all wisdom. Perugorría, 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. 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.

– Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter

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