“Maravilla,” dir. Juan Pablo Cadaveira
On June 4 at Madison Square Garden, Middleweight boxer Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez will defend his WBC Middleweight Championship belt against 3-division former world champion Miguel Cotto. The 39-year-old Argentinian southpaw is the odds-on favorite.
“Maravilla” begins in 2011 with Martinez’s sanguine victory over Kelly Pavlik and his subsequent coronation as Middleweight Champion of the World Boxing Council, The Ring Magazine and the World Boxing Organization. Controversy dovetails neatly with the arrival of contender Julio César Chavez, Jr. and accusations of nepotism in a sport already leaden with allegations of corruption and back-room dealing. Martinez loses his WBC Championship title and spends the rest of the film fighting to get it back.
Juan Pablo Cadaveira’s documentary, which chronicles Martinez’s rise to fame and subsequent fall, at the hands of the machinations of the mysterious promotional machine that hangs like a specter over the sport, has, embedded in it, the traditional rags-to-riches storyline that has made boxing and boxers such a mainstay of American storytelling. A keyhole through which the entirety of American masculinity can be passed. But the first moments of the film have Martinez dancing at night, shadowboxing in a hoodie and sweatpants, ducking, bobbing, sliding: the beauty in the bloodwork. His footwork, here and in the training montages that spot the film, is balletic.
Boxing narratives, within this general arc, often arise fully constructed (a particular feud, a specific betrayal, a wrongly-decided fight), but often, they must be finessed and curated.
Cadaveira professed, in a Director Q&A after the film, that when he began the film, he did not know how the eventual fight between Martinez and Chavez Jr. would end. It is perhaps serendipity that the 12th round of that fight would be a contender for Round of the Year, but the constituted metaphor of the film continues. Maravilla’s hand had broken in the 4th round of that championship fight. Throughout the fight and throughout nearly every fight in the film, the sound is exaggerated so that every hit lands with sickening thunder, a baritone impact with a melodic percussion of joints and bones bending and snapping under too much pressure, a reminder that, despite that triumphant image of Martinez fighting in his native Argentina to a stadium where every one of the 50,000 seats are full, this is a story about a man pummeling other men and being pummeled in return. A beautifully shot, structurally sound, tremendously and necessarily biased film, it was nonetheless a thrill to watch.
“Brides,” written by Tinatin Kajrishvili, David Chubinishvili; dir. Tinatin Kajrishvili
A soft film about people in an obdurate situation, “Brides” is the story of Georgian seamstress Nutsa who shares an apartment with her two young children. Her lover, Goga, has six years remaining on his prison sentence. In order to gain the privilege of prison visits and phone calls, Nutsa engages in a prison-sanctioned wedding ceremony, a surreal and perfunctory affair, more in keeping with the strictures of prison routine than the warmhearted and effusive event one expects. Still, the ceremony is a telling example of what Kajrishvili is capable in this, her feature film debut.
Nutsa’s most immediate challenge is figuring out how to raise her two children alone, and the absence of her new husband and their father becomes a palpable part of their lives. Even as the children, heartbreakingly, begin to adjust to life without him, Nutsa cannot, and the prison visits become more and more charged, the phone calls more and more a test of her resolve.
The film is dressed in somber, washed-out colors, but the face of lead actress Mari Kitia is alive and eloquent and prismatic enough to carry the entire film. Towards the end of the film, the “brides” are afforded a day with their husbands. The prisoners rearrange furniture in their new rooms to mimic the homes they haven’t seen in half a decade, guards bring them groceries, and one elderly prisoner croons in the arms of his wife while it rains.
“Brides” turns quiet, confidential moments into immensely significant inner revolutions without having those moments burst at the seams. Contained in the minimalist performances is a lived-in reality; the director stated, during a Q&A after the screening, that the film is based largely on her life as the wife of a prisoner during this time in Georgia’s history. This is perhaps why this stunning indictment of Georgia’s prison system manages never to stop being a tender and thoughtful examination of a family in extremis.
“Starred Up,” written by Jonathan Asser, dir. David Mackenzie
Sweeping to the opposite terminus is David Mackenzie’s British prison drama, “Starred Up,” a film whose violence is poetic and whose tragedy is Greek.
Eric Love, played with remarkable psychopathy and intelligence by “Skins” actor Jack O’Connell, is so violent that he has been ‘starred up’ and transferred prematurely to a high-security adult prison. He looks a decade younger than the inmates with whom he shares a hall, but the arrogant deadpan on his face in that opening sequence where he is transported, stripped, given his clothes and brought to his cell, betray a barely controlled atavism.
It becomes evident early on that his explosive temper and facility with violence cast him as a shark among sharks, rather than a minnow, but the rage he almost ritualistically deploys on prisoner and guard alike swiftly bring him enemies. A volunteer psychotherapist (played by “Homeland’s” Rupert Friend) operating an anger management course offers salvation and an opportunity for Love to battle his demons. But Eric must also contend with his father whose cell is but a floor above his own.
The dehumanized are given terrific, terrifying voice in this film, written by a former prison psychotherapist and based on his own
experiences, and the muted palettes in which the film is shot add to the claustrophobia that causes one to realize only once the outburst or the fight or the confrontation has ceased that one was holding one’s breath.
Shot through with surprising moments of levity, this story of father and son navigating an endless cycle of brutality and trying to break it, as bloodied and testosterone’d and muscled as it is, manages to of extraordinary tenderness and compassion. Terrible, fearsome, savage compassion.