By Daniel Walber | Spout April 22, 2011 at 6:38AM
I must admit that I tend to be skeptical when something is said to “evoke‘ Brokeback Mountain,’” as “My Last Round” is described on the Tribeca Film Festival website. Usually that just serves as shorthand for “this is a gay movie,” without much nuance. Thankfully here it definitely holds water and is perhaps even clarified further by the other reference, to Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” What connects the Chilean film to these works of American cinema is beyond the gay relationship at its center or the fact that boxing is kind of like wrestling. The comparison is valid because these movies all serve as meditations on masculinity as it defines and troubles us in contemporary society, each with a poetic sense of simple and unadorned beauty.
This debut feature of director Julio Jorquera follows the romance of boxer Octavio (Roberto Farías) and his young lover Hugo (Héctor Morales) as they fight through an escalating series of unfortunate obstacles. Octavio has to quit boxing because of a medical complication that puts him at high risk of a brain hemorrhage, Hugo gets fired from his job after getting his boss’s daughter pregnant, and they end up running off to the city to find some sort of alternate livelihood. Of course once they get there it doesn't get that much easier, and the tragedy of this film unfolds as we watch their relationship crack and warp with stress.
Hugo and Octavio become tragic figures not simply because they fall in and out of love but because they grapple with the decay of their own masculinity. Octavio seems to be a symbol of an effort to achieve the classically physical definitions of manhood, and his medically forced exit from the ring throws him off. He retreats into another traditionally male social space, the barber shop, but even that seems to be little more than a poorly applied bandage to his confidence. The pressure continues to cause him heaps of frustration in spite of the calming influences of Hugo and hairdressing. Much like Randy the Ram he is bound up tightly in a need for physical combat and the show of prowess over another man; it doesn't matter that he boxes at a fairly low level.
Hugo, on the other hand, has a different part to play. Octavio seems to find a job cutting hair almost immediately after their arrival in the city, leaving his lover at home in the apartment to fill a more domestic role. Clearly uncomfortable, bothered by his lack of employment just as the boxer is put off by his inability to show his strength in the ring, the younger man looks for work. He gets a job at a pet supply store, but yet again his boss has a daughter who seems to almost immediately fall for the earnest and shy young man. He is conflicted, stuck between his love for Octavio and the appeal of being admired in his work by an impressionable young woman. More than a gay romance, therefore, “My Last Round” quickly becomes a discussion of strength, money, women and homosexuality and how they all relate to our shifting definitions of manhood.
With that in mind, it becomes even clearer that Morales and Farías are inspired casting. The two complement each other perfectly, illustrating the contrast between Octavio’s blunt physicality and Hugo’s quiet vulnerability while simultaneously letting us see into the tenuous hold that each man has on his own self-confidence. These beautifully acted characters come together in moments of quiet intimacy, needing no flowery language or sentimental airs. They approach one another with an honesty and rawness that is not unlike that of “Brokeback Mountain” and when the understated romance is occasionally interrupted by brief moments of almost violent passion we can see directly into the ties that bond these two men together.
That calm frankness about love and sex, hardship and humanity seems to pervade not just the relationship between Octavio and Hugo but every aspect of “My Last Round.” It’s almost as if a sense of catharsis sets in well before the climactic moments of the film and the mood is pervaded with a peaceful resignation from start to finish. It opens with a funeral, after all, getting the brunt of sadness out of the way immediately so as to prevent melancholy from causing distraction later on. The larger themes and emotions will be laid out as the lovers try building something concrete out of their lives, adding an even greater poignancy to their moments of failure. It is in the same spirit as the above-mentioned films of Aronofsky and Ang Lee that “My Last Round” does not offer any conclusions, but rather humbly asks you to ponder.