El Piedra (The Stone) by director Rafael Martínez could be summed up in three words: legends, losers and redemption. But, it is deserving of many more words, given the fact this film marks Rafael’s debut on the cinematic stage, and as a story-teller who ventured beyond the affluent enclaves of his native Cartagena to capture an aspect of the city’s sporting subculture rarely seen by outsiders: boxing.
“I wanted to tell an honest story,” says Rafael of his 90-minute drama that rides an emotional swell from the opening scenes when an aging and bruised boxer by the name of Reynaldo “El Piedra” Salgado and played by Manuel José Álvarez, is woken up in the middle of night by a precocious street kid, Breyder, who claims Salgado is his father. Breyner interpreted by 15-year old Isaac Martínez has charm, bling, and moves to the rhythm of champeta when not stealing candles at funerals or fish from the Bazurto market. The arrival of Breyner is the final blow to Salgado, who surviving on scraps for meals is catapulted into the role of being a father.
Boxer and ruffian become a family of two, sharing moments together that are captured eloquently by the director and that shows Rafael’s profound understanding of the hand-to-mouth living conditions so many in the port city are subjected to every day.
Salgado takes his final stand in the ring in order to prove to his alleged son that he is willing to face personal injury against a younger – and stronger – opponent in order to get money, knowing that the match has been rigged. “The only thing worse for a boxer than defeat is being forgotten,” remarks Martínez, himself a former welterweight boxer from Cartagena who represented Colombia seven times on the international circuit and clinched seven national championships. “For me, boxing came naturally. I never thought I would go so far. But, when I took it on professionally, it was all about money, and where there is money there is also manipulation and deceit.”
The authenticity of Rafael’s feature is accentuated by the fact that neither Manuel Jose? nor young Isaac stepped in front of a camera until they were cast as the protagonists of a film that began to take shape in 2013. For Isaac, who lives in a rural community near the famous coastal city, the film instilled in him the dream to take up acting once he finishes high school, while for Manuel José, the chance to act broke with the routine of being a porter. “One doesn’t choose the films one wants to make, instead they choose you,” remarks the director of the boxing theme that for many in Cartagena could be considered a blight on the city’s reputation. “As a child growing up in Cartagena, I was always moved by the profound cultural richness of the barrios, more than the postcard image of the walled city. I always felt that the boxing tradition was over-romanticized, and this is a tough universe.”
Screened in the Cine en los barrios category of this year’s edition of the Cartagena International Film Festival (FICCI), El Piedra is as much about fragile relationships, as it is a film about the bonds that are formed between Colombia’s boxing legends, with several, including Bonifacio “El Bony” Avila, making their cameo appearance during a funeral scene. “This enriches the fiction,” states Rafael, “and the boxing legends felt this story had to be told.”
Pawn shops, hair salons and boxing clubs of the barrios that tumble from La Popa into the Ciénaga de la Virgen are the locations where most of the film was shot, and the predominately black Cartagena rarely seen by the hordes of tourists that everyday head to the famous monastery on top of the city’s most identifiable mountain.
In poignant scenes set to the golden glow of the Caribbean light, Rafael lifts a veil on a city of racial and social divides, but united by humor, music and solidarity. “The Cartagena of El Piedra is as valid as any other,” states the director, “and by having the privilege to tell a story about my city, I felt a greater sense of responsibility than if I had been filming anywhere else.”
After its critical acclaim at FICCI 59 and recipient of Most Solidarious Film Award at the 44th Ibero-American Film Festival of Huelva, Spain, El Piedra opens in theatres across Colombia on May 16.