What happens when you fight your hero? That’s just one of the questions addressed by La Guerra Civil, an engaging Sundance Film Festival documentary premiere from Eva Longoria Bastón. The debut director also produces this lively account of the rivalry between boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez in the 1990s. The men are interviewed separately, reflecting on their lives and their fights, while a series of talking heads offers insight into another key focus: cultural identity.
When Chavez and De La Hoya went head-to-head in the “Ultimate Glory” bout of 1996, Chávez was a Mexican national hero nearly 100 fights in; while De La Hoya was a young Mexican-American pretender to the throne. Both strongly identified as Mexican, but De La Hoya was considered an outsider to many, especially when he was taking on their untouchable icon.
The younger boxer talks frankly about his conflicting emotions, adding amusing recollections of a press tour, when he would leave the hotel at 4am for a run and see Chávez coming in from a night out. Well-chosen commentators remark on the boxers’ respective fanbases, different but united in a pride for their communities. It feels important that the majority of the interviews are in Spanish, when presumably many of them could have been in English, suggesting that the filmmakers share the cultural pride of their subjects.
Born in Texas to Mexican-American parents, director Longoria Bastón allows her voice to be heard briefly in the later part of the film, gently interviewing her subjects. It’s a subtle way of underlining her commitment, and one can imagine how a female interviewer might encourage a particularly intimate style of conversation.
An early section of the film goes into both boxers’ childhoods. “I was basically forced into it,” recalls De La Hoya of boxing at age five; just one of many comments that demonstrates his complex relationship with the sport. Meanwhile, Chávez shares memories that reveal his conviction, determination to succeed and his sense of humor — he jokingly comments on how good looking De La Hoya used to be.
Old photos and ephemera give a sense of time and place, and archive news footage gives an overview of their respective routes to fame. But this isn’t an exhaustive double-biopic: while both men’s troubles are touched upon, this skims over the details of their private lives and doesn’t delve into their relationships, or many stories that hit the tabloids. And while there’s fight footage and analysis, this isn’t an all-out boxing movie, either.
With a zippy pace and a busy score from Tony Morales, La Guerra Civil is an accessible study of boxers as cultural icons — and of the communities that both divided them and brought them together.
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