“Boxing is opera to Latins,” we hear in the early moments of “La Guerra Civil,” a comprehensive visual history of one of boxing’s most memorable fights, lavishly directed by powerhouse filmmaker Eva Longoria Bastón. But before the fight in question that took place a quarter of a century ago between Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez, Mexican communities, both at home and in the US, had much more to watch and think about than the inherent drama and spectacle of the revered sport.
In 1996, the year of the legendary competition, De La Hoya of East LA was known as “the golden boy.” A sweet Olympian with the looks of a movie star, he was so popular with the ladies that at several points in Longoria Bastón’s entertaining documentary, fans scream or try to steal a kiss as if they had just seen The Beatles. Older, tougher, and Mexican-born, Chávez invited a different kind of fan base as an athlete from across the border. “Chávez bleeds for us, De La Hoya bleeds for money” was a common acronym for how the duo were seen in the public eye. To many, Chávez was the authentic salt-of-the-earth Mexican with his hard background, while De La Hoya’s Mexican-American identity was a liability of sorts. The stakes were high for fighters and fans alike, as if a bond with either player would define one’s core identity as a Mexican.
This is the premise at the center of “La Guerra Civil”, and it’s repeated perhaps a little too often through the myriad colorful talking heads in this slightly too-long film – from sportswriter Claudia Trejos and actor George Lopez to historians, trainers, entrepreneurs and past. But the most notable interviewees, and the reason the film feels urgent, are Chávez and De La Hoya themselves. Longoria Bastón’s extraordinary entrance makes it a special kind of treat (and a healthy dose of ’90s nostalgia) to hear at length from both sensational figures, even if the repetitive points they make need to be cut tighter.
Still, you can’t fault Longoria Bastón for being overly enamored with the golden sound bites she extracts from the two legends, carefully interviewed against a simple yet industrial-looking artistic background. In collaboration with her editor Luis Alvarez y Alvarez, she smoothly assembles their dueling words in what feels like a rematch between Chávez and De La Hoya, and presents them with rich archival material presented in a neat chronological manner. In that respect, you don’t need to be a boxing expert to enjoy “La Guerra Civil” any more than you need to be into “Rocky”. What you need instead is an empathetic conscience for questions of identity, some of which should resonate with immigrants with a double sense of belonging. It also helps to have a thoughtful grasp of what it means to compete despite the risk of losing, when you have something other than proving your talent – the core of many beloved sports films in the history of cinema.
Longoria offers a generous perspective on these matters. By dissecting the two fighters’ respective stories from scratch, she underscores their unifying similarities as much as their differences. We learn that both Chávez and De La Hoya have had their fair share of financial hardship and painful childhood challenges. Raised in poverty, Chávez braved a violently drunk father and a disapproving mother, turning him into a boxer against all odds. Starting out as a fighter in his uncle’s garage at age six, De La Hoya survived one of the rougher parts of Los Angeles, where he was often bullied by neighborhood troublemakers as a skinny kid.
Investing emotionally in their youth makes “La Guerra Civil” all the more meaningful as it follows both men to the status of contemporary legend, through stunning archival footage featuring plenty of notable fights – from Chávez’s title-winning matches against Mario “Azabache” Martinez, Edwin “Chapo” Rosario and Roger Mayweather in the 1980s, after De La Hoya’s victory against Lamar Williams in his professional debut in 1992. There are also poignant stories about the athletes in the later stages of their careers, with Chávez’s addiction struggles becoming a major factor. takes part of the time.
The main event of “La Guerra Civil” – and what an attraction it is, thanks to the abundance of footage from Longoria – is the “Ultimate Glory” 1996 face-off between Chávez and De La Hoya. And what sports film would be complete without a training montage? Several are included leading up to the big fight, with a playful name-checking Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid.” It’s no spoiler to reveal that De La Hoya ultimately claimed the win, leaving Chavez with a cut eyebrow and a bruised ego.
But you would be wrong to assume that their saga ended there. Often branded with the pejorative phrase “pocho” (roughly an outsider who isn’t fluent in Spanish or Mexican culture), De La Hoya never quite got the approval he sought from Chávez and the Mexican people on both sides of the border. “The torch was not passed,” laments De La Hoya, who wanted nothing more than to prove his legitimacy as a Mexican. Finally, two years later, the duo would go head-to-head again in another fight that De La Hoya added to his victories, but this time with Chávez’s blessing. Their retelling of that moment adds a lot to a spirited documentary that is already packed.