(Originally published on the Examiner in July 2009, this review has been moved here in its entirety.)
Thirty years after the chants of "Lou-eee, Lou-eee!" have faded from Fenway, six miles from the spot of a very important and long-awaited 1975 reunion, the National Amusements Showcase Cinemas in Revere screened The Lost Son of Havana in Theater 1 at 7:35 pm; one of four daily screenings for at least the remainder of the week (if it is not held over any longer). The name of the movie was left out of the "Now Playing" flyers adorning the lobby, and there weren't any placards emblazoned with large quotes from Entertainment Weekly or video installments running trailers in loops. When asked for a ticket to the film, one of the theater's employees warned, "You do know it's a documentary, right?" Apparently, this disclaimer was necessary: some customers have been complaining. No one complained on this particular night, though - the four other people in the near-empty theater seemed perfectly content with their choice of entertainment.
If you do know it's a documentary, and you don't mind, please go out and catch this moving and very enjoyable picture, which observes beloved Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant's career, family life, and return trip to Cuba after 46 years in exile from the impoverished Communist island on which he was born and raised. Tiant's upright dignity is colored by a wry humor and pride, and also by a looming melancholy, and his charisma carries you along for the hour and forty-five minute running length. The filmmakers (director Jonathan Hock, backed by the Farrelly brothers, of all people) get out of their subject's way - the style is not flashy (though occasionally grainy film stock punctuates the video footage to represent Tiant's subjective impressions; it's a nice and subtle effect). The structure is the by now traditional call-and-response of the present (Tiant's visit to Cuba) and the past (his dogged up-and-down career in the majors); there is a narrator (the ever-dignified Chris Cooper) but he only steps in to introduce photos and footage from the 60s and 70s, tending to efface himself when the now elderly Tiant is onscreen.
Tiant is a man who has not had one athletic career, but several. First there are the years in Cuba, building up his skill, while his father - once a player in the American Negro leagues (the narration lyrically describes "seventeen summers on the backroads of America"), and a genuinely great one at that, considered by some a greater pitcher than Satchel Paige - hides in the bus roundabout across the street, watching his son play in the park despite his own disapproval of the boy's dreams. Then Tiant goes to the U.S. - and stays there when Cuba clamps down the door on ballplayers, insisting they either give up their dreams of a professional career and come home, or else abandon Cuba for a U.S. career. Tiant, with his parents' approval, chooses the latter path, and while this ensures all that is to come, to this day he seems to feel he must make excuses, and occasionally he voices mournful shame over what happened.
At any rate, success is by no means immediate. For a while he follows his father's path, playing across the Jim Crow South, and though civil rights breakthroughs were on the horizon, Tiant recalls the virulent racism of the time - another reminder that the trading-family-for-freedom narrative is not so simple as that. When he breaks in to the big leagues, he breaks in big time, pitching no-hitters, developing not one but two signature pitching styles, rising and falling between the majors and the minors, becoming a star, becoming a nobody, and becoming a star all over again...for those who are unfamiliar with the story, I will say no more, and let the movie work its magic on you. While many of Tiant's accomplishments would be at home in a feel-good sports flick, there are constant reminders that reality is messier: a powerful moment before the World Series followed by disappointment; ultimately, an inevitable fading from the scene despite comebacks; most importantly, a muted fatalism and sadness detected in Tiant's countenance.
All of this only makes the miracles that much more amazing, and the movie climaxes as Tiant's family life, the political relations of the U.S. and Cuba, and the baseball fortunes of the Red Sox converge in the autumn of '75, in a formulation that no fictional screenplay could get away with. Meanwhile, of course, the film cuts back to Tiant as a much older man, quietly surveying the baseball aficionados in Havana who, asked about the greatest Cuban exile ballplayer, come up with many other names before they remember his. His reunions and reconnections with old family and friends are emotional, but more in a quietly sad key than with a celebratory tone.
Early passages in the movie are informed by a firmly anti-Castro tone, a bit overbearing in Cooper's narration and in some of the bleak footage, but politics are neither the filmmakers' nor Tiant's concern; frustration and anger with the Castro regime's imprisonment of Cubans on their island (and in a decaying version of the past, a kind of national arrested development which foreigners seem to find romantic, but which many Cubans themselves appear frustrated by) give way to simple observation, with the emphasis on endurance and empathy, but in surprisingly uncloying ways. Repeatedly, the film eschews sentimentalism: though Tiant's family welcomes him with admiration and love, some old neighbors scold him with tears in their eyes for abandoning them - meanwhile, elderly aunts feebly remember the years lost and, in some sense, wasted, while younger cousins flat-out ask Tiant for money. Looking at their severely decayed surroundings, we do not wonder at it (and neither does he, providing the bills they require).
This is in keeping with the spirit of the man, whose determination is laced with regret, whose withheld feelings slip out from behind his reflective shades and can be glimpsed beneath his drooping gray mustache. In one scene, Tiant's narration informs us that he does not believe in an afterlife, even as the camera pans to a crucifix in his car; in this man's life, God exists to help one make it through, but there is no reward waiting on the other side. All that you have is what you make, what you've lost can never be regained, and yet one cannot linger over regrets for that very reason. That a few viewers have wandered out of the theater, apparently dismayed that they weren't seeing Transformers 2, is probably something Tiant could handle; he's been through much worse. The fact that his story is onscreen at all is triumph enough - and the experience is not to be missed.