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
Early on, we’re left wondering how much he even cares
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
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.