There's hunger, and then there's hunger, and every kind of both fuels the desperate young Cuban men who scrap through this nervy, sensual feature. The first hunger is the obvious one: Good food, like almost everything a family needs, isn't easy to come by in late-era Havana, so husband and new father Reinier (Reinier Díaz), a sharp-cheekboned beauty, has to peddle the only thing he owns of value in his shambling country's economy — his practice-toned amateur footballer's body. "Put it in him where you know it's supposed to go," his mother advises, in front of his wife, over breakfast.
Mom is talking about Juan (Toni Canto), a big-tipping Spaniard who's in town taking advantage of the sexual opportunities created by global inequality. Reinier doesn't need the urging. Again and again he visits Juan's hotel, hoping to score the cash that he has to put where it's supposed to go: to mom, to the wife, and to a bruiser bootlegger and moneylender who's selling soccer shoes, contraband T-shirts, and other imported luxury goods. And he has one other thing that Reinier slowly discovers he hungers for too — Yosvani (Milton García), the bootlegger's hunk of a son.
No, that's not going to end well. But it builds beautifully and with rare power, exposing miserable truths, fascinating contradictions, and moments of fleeting beauty.
Starring Milton Garca, Reinier Daz, Luis Alberto Garca, Mirta Ibarra, and Toni Canto. Directed by Antonio Hens. Written by Abel Gonzlez Melo and Antonio Hens. 94 minutes. Not rated. Opens Friday, January 24, at Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 786-385-9689; gablescinema.com.
Like last year's Una Noche (also set in Cuba) and Clip, director Antonio Hens' La Partida (the title translates to The Last Match) harrows viewers with its sweat-in-your-eyes look at the transactional sexuality of many young people in broke-ass countries. (We see Reinier, after a hookup with Juan, carefully scrubbing all evidence from his crotch.) "The only things to do down here are sweat and fuck," we were told in the bleak Una Noche, but La Partida, while plenty bleak itself, adds to that list a couple of things worth living for. There's soccer, of course, but better still is the need with which Reinier clutches Yosvani during their stolen trysts. Those scenes prove so raw and grand that they make it easy to forgive the cluttered final third of the film, in which 30 pounds of plot get shoved into a bag built for 20.
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The picture still grasps at the heart, even as the arc of its pained yet hopeful romance forks clumsily into dueling sport and crime dramas. Hens and cinematographer Yanelvis González shoot life in vital snatches, the camera dashing freely about the city, laying bare the circumstances that have driven Reinier and so many others to hustling. Several scenes feature Reinier lining up with a street party's worth of young men selling themselves, their bodies lean, their faces hungry, their desperation arranged into something like a buffet for tourists. "I'm no fag!" Reinier spits several times in the early going, when he thinks of sex as merely a tool to purchase new clothes. That's just one of the compounding tragedies here: the conviction that selling gay sex is nothing much to be ashamed of — but sharing gay sex that means something absolutely is.