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In the deft 'Viva,' a son's dream of being a drag performer is opposed by his surly father

Kenneth Turan reviews 'Viva' starring Héctor Medina. Video by Jason H. Neubert

Emotional and effective, "Viva" is a torch song melodrama convincingly set in Havana even though it's written and directed by a pair of Irishmen. Nothing happens you won't see coming, but it's all so deftly done you're more than happy to wait for the inevitable to arrive.

Shortlisted for the foreign language Oscar this year, "Viva" is set in the very specific world of Havana's drag performers. Director Paddy Breathnach first experienced this milieu as a tourist in the mid-1990s and, impressed by what he's called the scene's "raw emotional energy," he and screenwriter Mark O'Halloran returned to put it on film.

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Though "Viva's" audience-friendly story of a young man needing to fulfill himself and find common ground with a fiercely obdurate father is familiar, several factors combine to make this tale play considerably realer than it sounds, starting with naturalistic cinematography by Cathal Watters that captures the vivid street life of Cuba's capital.

The universe of lip syncing drag queens and the emotion they create onstage is central to the story, and "Viva" features a knockout collection of vintage torch songs by such legendary Cuban singers as Rosita Fornés, Elena Burke and Maggie Carlés. If there isn't a "Viva" soundtrack album in the works, there ought to be.

Most essential of all, "Viva" features excellent work by engaging Cuban actors little seen in this country, including Jorge Perugorría, best remembered in a very different context in 1993's Oscar-nominated Cuban film "Strawberry and Chocolate."

"Viva's" central character, a young gay man named Jesus, is played by Héctor Medina. Jesus is introduced standing off-stage at a Havana club, watching the elaborately dressed drag queens bringing to life the old songs the crowd loves.

Jesus is a hairdresser and a bit of a soft touch, often willing to lend his apartment to his friend Cecilia (Laura Alemán) so she can have some alone time with the boxer boyfriend whose fists, she believes, "are going to take me to Miami."

With his mother dead and his father, once a boxer himself, gone from his life since he was 3, Jesus dreams of being a drag performer. When an unexpected opening occurs at the club, he approaches Mama (Luis Albert Garcia), the man in charge of the talent, and asks for a shot, randomly picking the stage name Viva from the title of a fashion magazine.

This "go out there, kid, and come back a star" situation, laced with exhortations to give the audience "something real," is quickly joined by another that is equally classic. Suddenly, in the film's most dramatic scene, Jesus' father, Angel (Perugorría), reappears in his life and takes up residence in the family apartment.

A virulently macho ex-con just released from prison, the terrible-tempered Angel is homophobic, absolutely forbidding his son to have anything to do with drag performing or the drag world on pain of the kind of violence we are shown he is capable of inflicting.

For those who remember Perugorría's performance as a seductive gay man in "Strawberry and Chocolate," the convincing way he throws himself into the role of the aggressively surly Angel is more than impressive. Angel's loose-cannon nature, especially under the influence of rum, is frightening when it needs to be.

Just as strong is Medina, able to subtly convey both Jesus' tentativeness as well as the ability to be strong-minded if pushed too hard, which we come to see as a positive echo of his father's misbegotten determination.

One of "Viva's" best qualities is its ability to convey the reasons behind Jesus' passion for drag performance. "It's strong, it's pretty," he explains to Mama, adding, "I want something for myself."

That's something this film definitely gives him.

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'Viva'

No rating

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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