In Samba, the Bigger Fights Are Outside the Ring
By Bradford William Davis
A quiet, unconventional sports flick hits hardest when you least expect it.
Do you know why Joyce Carol Oates called boxing “the cruelest sport”? As Oates put it, the ideal outcome of a boxing match is “one man collapsed and unconscious, the other leaping about the ring with his gloves raised in victory, the very embodiment of adolescent masculine fantasy.” The sweet science is bitter, and its practitioners put their bodies on the line for uncertain and temporal glory. The pain incurred is not an aberration — it’s the point.
In Samba (2017), a Spanish-language movie set in the Dominican Republic where its title colloquially equates to “punching bag,” boxing is on the backburner. For Francisco, the story’s center, the real fight is for his son, and the hope that he can save him from a life of crime he knows too well.
Early on, we’re left wondering how much he even cares for the sport. When viewers are introduced to “Cisco” he’s just finished a 15-year prison sentence in the United States. As an ex-con, he’s virtually unemployable back home in the Dominican Republic, to his mother’s disappointment. His primary concern is steering his son, Leury, from his stick-up boy shenanigans, a path that got Cisco locked up in the first place. But with no money, and, understandably, no respect from the teenage son he was never there for, he’s gotta start somewhere. Boxing is his somewhere.
Though Samba is surprisingly unconventional, one boxing trope — the weather-worn and washed up trainer — punctuates the movie. Like Clint Eastwood’s acidic Frankie in Million Dollar Baby, or Mickey Goldmill, Rocky’s redass coach from the original trilogy, Francisco’s trainer, Nichi (Ettore D'Alessandro) recognizably falls into that familiar category the moment you see his glass eye glisten while he shadowboxes on the beach. Nichi is torn between moving forward and chasing his once-promising past. He could have been a contend-ah before the injury that blinded him in one eye— something Leury needles him about early on, the disrespectful little punk that he is — but the only thing he has left is his hunger for the fast life his former glories afforded him.
The contrast between Nichi and Cisco upends the traditional dynamic between trainer and pupil. In this case, the older man takes the role of a childish hothead, gambling himself into beatdowns from the mob while cycling women in and out of his bed. Cisco, who, save for boxing, wants to live a quiet life with his son, is the mature one.
Oates’ incisive words sum up Cisco’s story. “Boxing is only possible if there is an endless supply of young men hungry to leave their impoverished ghetto neighborhoods, more than willing to substitute the putative dangers of the ring for the more evident, possibly daily, dangers of the street.” Samba, like Oates, recognizes why boxing draws its practitioners and why we, as viewers, are drawn to great boxing stories.