The Tribeca Film Festival is here and while this may not be the first film I’ve seen at this year’s fest, it is the first review I’ve written to kick-off my yearly coverage. There is quite the variety at this year’s festival but I immediately gravitated towards Sambá because it hails from the Dominican Republic (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Dominican film) and it’s a boxing film. It was a combination I couldn’t resist and one that I think will intrigue others that way it did me.
Directed by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, Sambá follows Francisco “Cisco” Castillo (Algenis Pérez Soto) returning home to the DR after spending 15 years in a US prison. Upon his return, his life doesn’t get easier as his criminal history makes getting a job difficult. He also has to deal with his alcoholic mother while his estranged son is on a fast path to becoming a full time criminal. As a way to earn cash, Cisco uses the boxing skills he learned in prison to fight for cash on the street. While trying to navigate his own life, he meets Nichi (Ettore D’Alessandro), a former Italian boxer who has serious gambling problems and is in dire need of cash. The two team up as trainer and fighter in the hopes of improving their difficult situations and seek out some form of personal redemption.
Sambá is probably one of the most understated and quiet boxing films I’ve ever seen. It’s a small film that weaves its audience around a handful of characters with Cisco being the rock. I’ll dive into Cisco separately, but I found it impressive that my opinion of every single supporting character changed as the film progressed. Some of the characters you’ll hate at the start and appreciate at the end while, for others, it’s the exact opposite. Each character faces varying degrees of trauma in this 90 minute film and it’s this special attention to each character’s evolution that makes the film much more compelling than it really should be.
Cisco, portrayed pretty well by Algenis Pérez Soto, does a nice job of keeping his character in check. He’s intense when he needs to be and shy in other instances since he is, after all, a stranger returning home and trying to find his place. I would have loved to learn a little more about him and dive even further into his psyche but, by the end, we aren’t given that opportunity.
Unfortunately, despite it being a boxing movie, Sambá is not nearly as intense as one would hope. This isn’t Rocky, Creed, Southpaw or even Hands of Stone, this is a lower budget drama that uses fighting as a backdrop for the deeper story that’s present. The film isn’t about winning a championship, it’s about stepping up and taking control of your opportunity and, in some ways, doing right by others for the mistakes that you’ve made. While the intensity was a bit of a letdown, I can’t deny that I was drawn to the film regardless.
Overall, Sambá is a delicate boxing movie that works. Boxing isn’t delicate and it blows my mind that I’m using that word, but this gentle touch by the co-directors, one of whom is female, really makes a difference and helps distinguish this Dominican film from any other boxing movie I’ve ever seen.