CLFF Review: ‘The Last Match’

Cuba, Spain | 2013 | 94 min.
Director: Antonio Hens
Genre: Drama
Spanish with English subtitles

Saturday, April 18, 2015, 10:00 pm at AMC River East 21 Theatre

Tuesday, April 21, 2015, 9:15 pm at AMC River East 21 Theatre

“This world isn’t made for fags,” Yosvani is told by his soon-to-be father-in-law. His fiancé agrees: “If you’re not a thug, you’re a faggot.”

This law serves as the menacing background of Antonio Hens’ La Partida (The Last Match). At the foreground of this Cuban-Spanish collaboration stand Yosvani and his best friend Reiner, two handsome young habaneros sharing more in common than their love of soccer. For one, both are in heterosexual relationships — Yosvani with his fiancé, Reiner with his wife — and yet both also struggle with their sexual identities.

In an early scene we see Yosvani coaxed into sex by his fiancé. Since their relationship isn’t immediately clear and because Yosvani appears to be an unwilling participant, viewers could be forgiven for thinking she’s a relative or someone he isn’t supposed to be romantic with.

It’s a different story with Reiner. When he strolls along the Malecón and picks up an older man visiting from Barcelona, we assume he’s gay. The two passionately roll around naked on a bed, but just as the man prepares to insert, Reiner tells him, “Not through there. I’m not a fag.” The man pays him before leaving. Later, after a night out, a drunken Reiner kisses Yosvani and goes home to where his wife and young son are already asleep.

The kiss is a breaking point for Yosvani, who can no longer deny that he’s gay and in love with his friend. Reiner, however, seems unwilling to make the same admission, though he eventually accepts the feelings he has for Yosvani. The two carry on a passionate, albeit highly secretive love affair. After all, they still must navigate a heteronormative, hypermasculine world. Between the suspicions of Yosvani’s fiancé’s machista father and Reiner’s obligations to his family, the two lovers are kept apart in a ultramodern version of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.

According to its detractors, the Castro regime is racist and homophobic, or at the very least, insensitive toward the island’s black and LGBT populations. Of course such critiques aren’t entirely untrue, for as with most societies, Cuba has struggled to recognize the equal worth of black and LGBT lives. Yet if we’re to believe Cuba is ruled by a racist, homophobic and overbearing regime, then what should we make of La Partida?

Here we have a Cuban film refusing to dance around subjects that even the average American is likely to find taboo. As if to hit two birds with one stone, the lovers are not only both male, they have different skin color as well — Yosvani is dark and Reiner is white with dirty-blond hair. To star an actor as visibly biracial as the one playing Yosvani is itself a statement, especially under a regime said to be racially insensitive. It would’ve been too easy to script a token black character, and thus make the subject matter — if you’ll pardon the pun — more black and white. Featuring a biracial character draws attention to something more honest about the issue of racial identity in former slave societies like Cuba, something the Cuban government is supposedly looking to sweep under the rug.

The collapse of Cuba’s economy is another theme, with La Partida casting its spotlight onto a seedy world of gamblers, thieves, drug users and prostitutes. Here Cubans trade stolen goods on the black market and try to double their money in back-alley shell games. And let’s not forget the way in which Reiner is forced to make a living. He takes no joy in prostituting himself to older man along the Malecón — something he refers to as “la luchita” — any more than a female prostitute enjoys working a Chicago street corner. Prostitution is a matter of necessity, for gay and straight alike.

Criminality aside, perhaps the most damning moment involves Rainer’s grandmother-in-law urging him to leave Cuba with the Spaniard and marry him in order to get his baby son out of Cuba. Yes, Rainer’s wife and mother-in-law know how he makes his living. That they accept as a necessary evil the fact that a straight man — to their knowledge — has to have sex with men for money reveals a ton about how deep and pervasive hopelessness is in Cuba.

It’s enough to make you wonder how the government censors could have let slip such a blatant rebuke against the failure of the Communist program. Or maybe the only thing as melodramatic as the final scene between Yosvani and Reiner is the charge that Cuba’s government has transformed the island into a modern-day Airstrip One, where the state prohibits any form of expression that doesn’t align with the ruling doctrine.

I realize the 31st Chicago Latino Film Festival hasn’t even started yet, but this film is probably the boldest, most critical I’ll see this year, in and outside of the festival. As a progressive and cosmopolitan yanqui myself, I can safely say I’ve never seen a more homoerotic movie than La Partida, a film which makes Brokeback Mountain look like a molehill. And it’s for that reason I can just as confidently predict it would be deemed too controversial and kept out of no less than eight out of 10 theaters in the self-styled bastion of liberty that is the United States.

If the level of social introspection offered by La Partida bears the stamp of a so-called “closed society,” then a stern finger must be aimed at our own movie industry, for you’d be hard-pressed to recall when Hollywood produced something more provocative, biting and brave.

[Photo: Chicago Latino Film Festival]