We remember the great boxing films as much for the boxers as for the boxing itself, perhaps even more. What are the scenes we remember most vividly from Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980)? The relentlessly brutal fighting, yes, but what sticks the most was Jake LaMotta’s slow self-destruction, his homicidal sexual jealousy, his churning madness. The most visually gruesome moment of the film might be Jake pulverizing pretty boy Tony Janiro’s nose, but the most shocking is when he repeatedly accuses his brother Joey of sleeping with his wife before assaulting him in front of his wife and children. Boxing films are the most existential of all sports genres: the fights are manifestations of their characters’ drives, hope, and neuroses; each fight a physical synecdoche of their personal struggles.
But what drives Francisco “Cisco” Castillo (Algenis Perez Soto), the lead in Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán’s Dominican boxing drama Sambá? A Dominican returned to his home island after serving 15 years in an American prison, one would think it would be because Cisco needs to make money. Indeed, he’s fired from his first job at a dockyards after his record is discovered. But no, Cisco seeks out his first fight before he’s fired. But for what? He was making good money at his job. Was it to re-establish his bruised sense of masculinity? An animalistic impulse to fight? Cisco never lets on, partially because Soto gives a blank-faced, monotone performance—he barely even flinches during an out-of-nowhere scene where he receives fellatio on the beach from a woman he’s talked to maybe twice before—partly because neither Cárdenas nor Guzmán manage to define him as a character. He fights because he fights because he fights. Much like the film itself, Cisco is a vacuous void. We feel no emotion when he wins, when he loses, when he suffers, when he triumphs. When the film devolves into the third act of Rocky (1976) near the end, we’re left feeling bored instead of inspired.
Maybe Cárdenas and Guzmán could have saved their film by making the obvious choice of focusing on Cisco’s trainer Nichi Valente (Ettore D’Alessandro) as the main protagonist. A washed up would-be boxing contender from Italy who immigrated to the island a decade ago, Nichi wallows away in a pit of misery fueled by incessant gambling debts, menial day jobs, and an endless string of meaningless one night stands. He sees in Cisco more than just a chance to clear his debts to the mob: he sees a new cause worth fighting for. Sure it’s clichéd, but it’s more interesting than the tiresome enigma that is Cisco. Even though D’Alessandro seems no more inclined than Soto to emote or give an engaging performance, we feel more pity and sorrow for him when the mob comes knocking on his door to collect.