‘Viva’ urges us to find our voice

“Viva” (2015 production, 2016 release). Cast: Héctor Medina, Jorge Perugorría, Luis Alberto García, Renata Maikel Machin Blanco, Luis Manuel Alvarez, Paula Andrea Ali Rivera, Laura Alemán, Oscar Ibarra Napoles, Luis Angel Batista Bruzón, Jorge Eduardo Acosta Ordonez. Web site. Trailer.

Identifying our own form of self-expression can be a challenging process, but, once we find it, we generally want to move forward with it enthusiastically and unimpeded. However, despite such fervor, sometimes we encounter hindrances that keep us from proceeding, frustrating our progress. We often wonder why this happens, but many times we eventually come to discover that they serve a purpose, one that we fail to understand at the time they unfold. Such is the case in the heartfelt new drama, “Viva.”

Jesus Gutierrez (Héctor Medina) struggles to get by in the slums of Havana, Cuba. The young hairdresser has no family, but his friends (Laura Alemán, Paula Andre Ali Rivera, Luis Angel Batista Bruzón) and customers do what they can to look after him. In addition to his small pool of regular clients, Jesus coifs the wigs of the performers at a local drag club. But, when those efforts don’t generate enough income, he takes to the streets as a hustler, servicing the needs of visiting tourists and assorted locals. Turning tricks is not something he’d rather do, though, so he seeks another option, one that he finds right under his nose – trying his hand at being a drag queen.

With the somewhat tepid support of the club’s owner, Mama (Luis Alberto García), Jesus takes to the stage under the performing name Viva. His initial outing leaves much to be desired, but Mama agrees to give him another shot. With pointers from fellow performers (Luis Manuel Alvarez, Renata Maikel Machin Blanco), he learns how to improve his stage presence. They also show him how to coax money from audience members. But that suggestion backfires when Jesus is slugged while soliciting tips from a middle-aged patron who proves to be an angry, homophobic drunk – a man who also turns out to be his long-estranged father, Angel (Jorge Perugorría), a one-time boxing contender jailed for murder.

Angel informs Jesus that he’s returned to take back the life that he believes was taken from him. He moves in with his son and quickly proceeds to start dictating to him how he’ll live his life – including giving up drag. Just when Jesus thinks he’s found his calling, he has the rug pulled out from underneath him.

Jesus refuses to be deterred, though. He does his best to cope with Angel’s return, taking whatever steps are necessary to support them both while quietly keeping his own dream alive. It’s an exercise in learning what it means to build his own inner strength, much of which, interestingly enough, comes from the power of forgiveness. Through his stormy, gut-wrenchingly emotional relationship with Angel, the would-be drag queen truly learns what it means to be fierce.

Jesus Gutierrez (Héctor Medina), an aspiring drag queen who performs under the stage name Viva, seeks to find his own voice in “Viva.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Fighting for our goals takes tremendous fortitude, but, even with the best of intentions, we’re often faced with having to ask ourselves if we have enough of what it takes. In many instances, this is where the power of belief (specifically, our belief in ourselves) comes into play. And this is crucial, since our beliefs, along with our thoughts, emotions and intents, form the cornerstone of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience.

To a certain extent, the degree of stock we put into our beliefs makes a difference. When we give ourselves lukewarm support, we may prevail in materializing our dreams, but we may not, either, especially if the undertaking involves a substantial aspiration. So, the more fervor we pour into our beliefs, the greater our chances of seeing our objectives fulfilled. This, in essence, is the nature of faith.

For his part, Jesus has tremendous faith in his abilities, even if he’s initially lacking in practice and poise. However, he knows he can pull off his drag act, and he grows ever more confident and convinced of that as time passes. What’s more, the more he sheds conflicting beliefs that undercut his efforts – particularly those related to fear and self-doubt – the more grounded he becomes in his convictions. He thus sets an inspiring example for us all to follow, no matter what we may be pursuing in our lives.

Ironically, Jesus draws some of his inspiration from Angel, someone who literally once fought for his dreams. However, what separates Jesus from his father is his faith in himself. He’s willing to hold fast to his goal, despite whatever obstacles appear in his path.

Angel, by contrast, apparently gave up on his goal of becoming a boxing contender by falling into a life of crime, drinking and, eventually, failing health. Unlike his son, he lacked the degree of faith in himself that he needed to see things through, succumbing to influences that sabotaged his dreams. And, even though his release from prison renewed his ambition of getting back into the game (by becoming a boxing coach), he still struggles with mustering the conviction he needs to realize that goal, especially now that his life has become dominated by daily alcoholic binges.

Angel Gutierrez (Jorge Perugorría, left), a one-time boxing contender jailed for murder, returns home to his estranged son, Jesus (Héctor Medina, right), an aspiring drag queen, in an attempt to get his life back in the engaging new drama, “Viva.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Still, ironically enough, the boxer ends up teaching the drag queen how to fight for his voice. In this way, Angel looks to turn things around for himself, even if his methods are somewhat backhanded and unconscious. In doing so, he thus avails himself of one of conscious creation’s greatest (and often most overlooked) blessings – an opportunity for redemption. While this may not enable Angel to undo his past, it nevertheless gives him a chance to make amends for it, to give a gift to himself and to the son he abandoned, to accomplish something meaningful and contributory while he’s still able to.

At the same time, Angel’s actions benefit Jesus by showing him the way toward gratitude and forgiveness (and everything that comes from them). These qualities make it possible for Jesus to appreciate what his father has given him, even if those gifts have come to him in a roundabout manner. They further bolster his beliefs in himself and his talents, which may not have materialized to the same extent were it not for his father’s influence. Such self-awareness, in turn, allows Jesus to galvanize himself in his beliefs, planting the seeds for his career and a promising future. Having endured his circumstances and identified the silver lining in them, Jesus finds the inner strength needed to rise to his own greatness.

While the narrative of “Viva” is somewhat formulaic, the picture’s unique setting and characters help to distinguish it from other similar dramas. This touching, sometimes-humorous, sometimes-gritty film explores what it means to find one’s voice while simultaneously plumbing the depths of concepts like forgiveness and redemption. It’s also refreshing that the picture doesn’t rely on an endless repertoire of musical numbers to carry the story, despite the importance of drag to the film’s story. Admittedly, the pacing slows a bit too much in the final half hour, but “Viva” comes through on all other fronts, delivering a tremendously powerful punch.

Expressing ourselves is something we all seek to do to make our mark on the world, to bring forth our inner self into tangible being. It’s often a struggle, even when we have a sense of what it entails. But it’s also an undeniable passion, one that’s not easily silenced or squelched, especially when fueled by our personal fervor and faith in ourselves. Finding a way to see it made manifest is the calling we must all address, and, if we’re fortunate enough to succeed, we’re able to live out the destiny we were intended to fulfill.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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