Sambá is a sports drama about redemption through the metaphor of life and boxing.
“Sambá” begins in a United States prison’s boxing ring with slow-motion, showcasing the delicate dance of boxing beautifully set to Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold.’ It seemed to be a homage to “Raging Bull”’s gorgeous black and white orchestral opening and the story itself fringes on a sort of modern Dominican “On the Waterfront.” Franciso “Cisco” Castillo (Algenis Perez Soto) who has just finished serving a 15-year prison sentence in the United States and is deported back to his home in the Dominican Republic. His mother and his teenage son have been residing in their modest home. His son Leury gives him a cold welcome home, chastising him for not bringing a gift. Cisco takes up a laborious job at the docks and warehouses that his deceased father had previously worked.
The characters and actors all have a natural depth and feel fully formed. Cisco, on his way from work, sees Nichi, an Italian immigrant, working on his dashing red Datsun, he has one dead eye and a serious face. I was thinking to myself this would be the main villain but he himself is a former washed-up boxer. Nichi, played by Ettore D’alessandro, with equal charisma and internal sadness, struggles with his gambling addiction. Nichi used to to be a promising boxer in Italy but due to poor management and coaching, he lost the use of his left eye during a brutal match that should’ve been called earlier. Nichi and Cisco officially meet during a back alley boxing bout to prove his skills. It’s a great scene that doesn’t feel forced and it’s amazing to see Cisco use his hands to take down a gargantuan opponent. The fight is cleanly shot and nice natural street lighting catches the sweat and scuffle in the shadows. Nichi gives Cisco his prize money and tries to convince him to train further for much more money for a mutually beneficial relationship.
Cisco’s Son Leury spends his days with his ne’er do well friend, committing petty robberies whilst speeding on their shiny dirt bike. They seem infatuated with the gangster lifestyle and they rob unsuspecting affluent women for their purses. There is a lot of tension and quiet anger between Cisco and his son, it is hard to fathom seeing someone after 15 years apart. We never discover why Cisco was arrested but it seems to be non-violent and more importantly, the audience is not spoon-fed pages of exposition to understand our characters.
The camera work is shot in intimate close-ups and authentic locations that don’t seem to have one single studio or stage, further grounding this story. The performances and their interactions are so natural. In another excellent scene among many, Cisco wins an early bout and is encouraged by Nichi to dance with a beautiful woman. Cisco is very shy and Nichi uses this to not only make him more comfortable but also to turn the two-step dance movements into a brief lesson on his boxing technique. Many other movies would turn it into a Miyagi-like milestone, hitting you over the head like one of the films pugilists. I will be keeping an eye on this cast and crew for future projects and will be in their corner cheering them on.
Available on Digital Platforms Tuesday, December 18th