In the Havana of Paddy Breathnach’s Viva, everyone seems to indulge in a little sex work or scam artistry in order to get by. But while misery seems to be evenly distributed, some find deliverance in the art of drag. This is the case for Jesus (Héctor Medina), a gay hairdresser whose timidity has kept him at the margins of Havana’s kinship-making drag scene, for which he’s styled wigs, but never dared to put one on. It’s when Jesus finally musters up the courage to dress up and perform at a cross-dressing cabaret that he feels the most free, but is also surprised to find in the audience his estranged father, Angel (Jorge Perugorría), an alcoholic jailbird who abandoned him when he was a child. The sequence echoes the uncanny encounter of father and son at a gay sauna in Tsai Ming-liang’s riveting The River, except here accidental incest is replaced by its virulent denial, as Angel sucker-punches Jesus in the face.
Although the threat of violence haunts Viva, its ethos is closer to the overt light-heartedness of Panos H. Koutras’s Xenia, which also establishes diva music as an effeminate boy’s device for emancipation. If in the Greek film Italian singer Patty Pravo is an imaginary fairy godmother pushing the main character to go on in the face of fatherly absence, in Breathnach’s film there’s no paternal bruise to the chin that can’t be sublimated, albeit momentarily, by the flawless lip-synching of a bolero. Viva also takes up the under-explored relationship between butch father and girly son, suggesting that though they’re separated by an abyss of differences, their defense mechanisms can be quite similar and corporeal as they both find a small world to belong to, one at the boxing gym, the other as a performer at a cabaret.
Viva seems to point to a new wave of global queer cinema that doesn’t see gay experience as a simplistic caterpillar-to-butterfly fairy tale. This new batch of films, which includes Don’t Call Me Son, Being 17, and Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories, spotlights the relationship between the gender-nonconforming self and normative otherness (fathers, brothers, straight-identified lovers), instead of pitting gay characters against their own miserable mirrors to find redemption. For the makers of these films, it’s okay for queer boys not to graduate into a pseudo-butch chiseled-bodied adulthood, but to remain just that: queer, awkward, needy, even girly. In Viva, Jesus doesn’t need to transition into transexuality as a stable identity or final destination. He utilizes cross-dressing as something between a therapeutic and a technological tool for enjoyment and survival. “Woman” is something he puts on and takes off at will since the stage seems to be the only place for a gay man to be able to speak without passing for something he’s not in Havana.
The drag in Viva also rejects the U.S.-centric obsession with “realness” and the acrobatics that come with it. Jesus’s drag, and that of others in the cabaret, is subtle and visceral. Their clothes are modest, their gestures are small, their wigs are short, even their foundation is too thin to cover their five o’clock shadow. There’s no shade and no competition, but a solidarity we simply don’t find in the voguing balls depicted in Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning. Although these queens are actually lip-synching for their lives, they use the music not as a platform to show off, but as an opportunity to interpret and to render visible their long-muffled emotions.