The Last Match (La partida): Thessaloniki Review

Falling in love is great. Suffering through contrived mini-dramas -- not so much.

The second feature from Spanish director-producer Antonio Hens stars impressive newcomers Milton Garcia and Reinier Diaz as secret gay lovers in working-class Cuba.

A soccer-loving, married male hustler from Cuba finds it really hard to accept he might be gay and in love with his best friend in The Last Match (La partida), from Spanish producer and occasional director Antonio Hens.

Told with an immediacy and rawness that suggest life in working-class Cuba is far from easy yet always animated and extremely alive, this same-sex romance benefits from unselfconscious, impressively nuanced and mature performances from its two young leads. Though the direction often pops, the story doesn’t completely follow suit, with the impressively handled first hour followed by an increasingly muddled third act that’s rife with fabricated-feeling drama and, finally, tragedy that never quite rings true.

Knowingly sexy but also keenly aware of the island’s shadow economy in which bodies are an easily available commodity that can be sold to make ends meet, The Last Match should be of interest at LGTB events and to distributors, as well as general festivals interested in what remains a quite rare portrait of the harsh realities of contemporary Cuba. The film had its European premiere at the Thessaloniki Film Festival.

Hens first grabbed attention as a director with his 2007 gay Basque terrorist drama Clandestinos and has since produced several films set in Cuba, including veteran Cuban filmmaker Enrique Pineda Barnet’s Green Green, about the fine line between repressed gay desire and anti-gay violence. He’s clearly at home in the country, which cinematographer Yanelvis Gonzalez captures in loose, somewhat nervous hand-held shots that follow the protagonists around closely while also placing them in wider sociopolitical and familial contexts.

Reinier or Rei (Reinier Diaz) is a strapping young soccer lover who’s married and the father of a young baby. He's best buds with Yosvani (Milton Garcia), who lives with his older and richer fiancee at the house of her dad (Luis Alberto Garcia), a macho loan shark for whom Yosvani is forced to moonlight. Rei’s ways of earning a very meager living aren’t much better; he tries to do a little gambling and at night prowls the Malecon seawall, looking for people like Juan (Toni Canto, the transsexual father from Almodovar's All About My Mother), a wealthy Spanish tourist who’ll pay good money to have sex with Rei.

Sex with men, however, is strictly business for Rei, at least until an unexpected erotic tension starts to develop between himself and Yosvani. Neither knows how to handle this, and some of Hens’ best scenes involve Yosvani and Rei coming to terms with their feelings for one another, going from repulsion and disbelief to slyly creating situations, initially fueled by alcohol and drugs, in which things could occur that normal straight friends wouldn’t necessarily do together. When an initially angry and almost homophobic Rei finally slams the hesitant Yosvani into a wall to kiss him, it’s a scene that’s clearly modeled on one of Brokeback Mountain’s most famous moments but not any less powerful for it, as it beautifully illuminates both his confusion and the strength of his desire.

As demonstrated in last year’s Tribeca hit Una noche from Lucy Mulloy and Carlos Lechuga’s recent Molasses, the pragmatism of dirt-poor Cubans combined with the near-constant, sweltering sexual tension that hangs heavy in the air suggest easy ways to make a quick buck. Rei’s mother even encourages her 18-year-old son to “put it where you know it’s supposed to go” where Juan is concerned and hopefully marry him, so Rei can move to Spain and subsequently bring his mom, wife and baby over. That a society so pragmatic about sex, even gay sex for money, also is still a very gay-unfriendly place is one of Cuba's many contradictions that organically surface in Hens's film.

But the screenplay, by the director and Abel Gonzalez Melo, doesn’t know where to go once both young men give in to their desire and take their friendship to a new level of intimacy. The third act goes into plot overload, fabricating last-minute mini-dramas involving the sudden disappearance of Juan, money problems, an unexpected soccer opportunity for Rei and crazy ideas from lovesick Yosvani -- all designed to keep the action moving but obscuring what really matters: the characters and their complex feelings and relationships to each other and their surroundings.

Venue: Thessaloniki Film Festival (Open Horizons)

Production companies: Malas Companias, El Azar, Doce Gatos

Cast: Milton Garcia, Reinier Diaz, Luis Alberto Garcia, Mirta Ibarra, Toni Canto

Director: Antonio Hens

Screenwriters: Antonio Hens, Abel Gonzalez Melo

Producers: Antonio Hens, Vanessa Portieles

Director of photography: Yanelvis Gonzalez

Production designer: Alain Ortiz

Costume designer: Vladimir Cuenca

Editor: Julio Gutierrez

Sales: Media Luna

No rating, 94 minutes.