Matt Reviews “The Cuban Game” (El Juego de Cuba)

As a precursor to UWM’s Latin American Film Series, on Thursday Marquette University hosted a screening of El Juego de Cuba (The Cuban Game), a Spanish-made documentary about the history of baseball in Cuba, followed by a post-film talkback session with the film’s director, Manuel Martín Cuenca.  The film explores baseball’s historical, political, and cultural context in Cuba, as well as the role that baseball plays in the lives of the players and the fans.

El Juego de Cuba opens with scenes from a 1999 two-game series between the Cuban All-Stars team and the Baltimore Orioles.  This game was immensely significant as it legitimized the Cuban baseball league as well as represented a symbolic step in the breaking down of the barriers between Cuba and the United States.  Halfway through the film, we return to the first game of this series played in Havana, in which the Orioles beat the Cubans with a final score of 3-2 in the eleventh inning.  (We also are privy to fantastic footage of a nervous and frustrated Castro anxiously coaxing his team.)  The film ends with the second game played in Baltimore, in which the Cubans beat the Orioles 12-6.  The drama built around this series was cinematically very effective, and created a compelling arc throughout the course of the film.

The rest of the film told the story of the history of Cuban baseball, from its beginnings in the late 1800s when it was supposedly introduced by visiting American students.  Despite the sport being shunned and discouraged by the Spanish authorities, who felt that it might insight violence with its club-like bats, it quickly became immensely popular with the Cuban people, and came to represent an anti-Spanish countercultural mentality.  During this time, baseball became the national sport of Cuba, and Cuenca interviews several former players that got their start in these early years in the early 1900s.  In a time where news stories about professional sports involve bounties paid for injuring opposing players and the most recent film about professional baseball involved essentially turning the sport into a mathematical formal based on the bottom line, it was really nice to hear these aging players talk about their love for the game.

By the Cuban revolution, baseball was the central pastime on the island.  According to stories told by the players interviewed, even after the revolution, Castro would often call together the players for a game.  (Never one to lose, he would apparently stack the teams in his favor, and even once when losing extended the game into extra innings and the early hours of the morning until he could end the game with a win in the sixteenth inning.)  At this time, however, the game gained new political implications.  Baseball came to represent Cuban nationalism, particularly when tensions with the United States began to mount with the Cold War.  This continued until recent years, when American scouts took notice of the Cuban players and would sign them to American teams, offering salaries unheard of on the island.  This created a rift within Cuba, with many citizens furious at the “traitorous” and “sellout” players who would jump ship to the United States.  We also see footage of baseball players, along with other Cubans, making the notorious journey from Cuba to Florida on makeshift rafts.  The film ends with this unsettled world of two professional baseball leagues, separated only by a thin strip of ocean, frequently butting up against each other, but simultaneously worlds apart, not unlike the relationship between the Cuban and American governments.

The documentary itself was filmed in traditional “Ken Burns” style, composed of archival footage, talking head interviews, and slowly zooming in and out of vintage photographs.  The format was nothing unique or particularly fascinating, but was executed well and served the purpose of the narrative.  The archival footage I found most compelling.  For any old-time sports fetishists, there is ample opportunity to enjoy grainy black and white film of early Cuban baseball gameplay.  Even the modern games were enjoyable to watch, absent all of the distractions of televised sports to which we’ve become accustomed.  All of these shots were fascinating, and some I would call beautiful.

My primary criticism of the film was that it may have been a bit broad in its ambitions.  It jumped around from topic to topic and time period to time period, and at times it was difficult to keep track.  Looking back on it now, there are important elements that I am having difficulty recalling, likely because of the breadth of the subject matter and the fragmented approach.  That said, the use of the series against the Orioles as a narrative device to tie the movie together was quite effective in doing so, and even if I was lost at times, as a result the film did feel like a cohesive whole.

To be honest, I had not thought much about Cuban politics or history since I studied it in Latin American History in high school.  I think for many of us, it is easy to forget about our island neighbor.  This film was a fascinating depiction of one particular aspect of our complicated relationship with Cuba and its residents.  As the director pointed out in a post-screening talkback session, in many ways this is not a film about baseball.  He uses baseball as a means of examining the nation as a whole, and I feel he was quite successful in doing so.

B+

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