Scan the title of “La Guerra Civil” and you’d be forgiven for assuming that it’s about a civil war. In some ways, you’d be right. The only difference is that in this lively, zigzagging documentary, which premiered January 20 at the Sundance Film Festival, the battling factions aren’t armies but boxers — and, though they didn’t ask for it, the war they’re fighting is a cultural one that extends far beyond the ring.
The directorial debut from “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria Bastón, “La Guerra Civil” is an often entertaining collage of archival footage and contemporary interviews that spins a tale of two renowned rivals: the Mexican boxer Julio César Chávez and the Mexican-American boxer Oscar De La Hoya. Though somewhat straightforward in premise and repetitive in message, the film is more than a simple story of sports glory: With an honest perspective and energetic style, it offers a shrewd look at how two athletes came to represent divergent national and social identities.
Two legends of the sport, both Chávez and De La Hoya are of Mexican heritage — de la Hoya was a first-generation American raised in a Mexican household in East Los Angeles, and Chávez was born and raised in Sonora, Mexico — and through their entrance music, boxing robes, and personal branding, the athletes were equally dedicated to foregrounding their Mexican heritage with pride.
Yet despite their shared Mexican identity, their backgrounds differed. While Chávez, who grew up poor, took up boxing in an effort to make money for his family, De La Hoya was pushed into the sport by his father at an early age. “What kind of kid wants to get hit at five years old?” De La Hoya asks in a heart-wrenching moment, as he looks back on his first fight versus his cousin, which he was pressured into by his uncle. Chávez, on the other hand, recalls pleading with his mother to let him go up against other kids in the barrio; he acknowledged that boxing was dangerous, but even from an early age, he felt he had to earn his keep. (It is implicit, though the documentary doesn’t acknowledge it outright, that Chávez bears the name of the Mexican-American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, a lifelong advocate for the working class.)
As they each rose up — Chávez in the ‘80s and De La Hoya in the ‘90s — they grew into idols for different identity groups. Chávez, with his air of “I’ll take your abuse and I’ll suffer ‘til I beat you,” as one subject puts it, became a hero to marginalized Mexican immigrants. His boxing strategy, aggressive and improvisational, was recognized by fans as a distinctively “Mexican style of fighting.” De La Hoya, a handsome, dimpled bilingual kid, was adored by a separate set of fans, many of them women who swooned over his heartthrob good looks. Before going professional, De La Hoya won an Olympic gold medal for the United States; he played golf and interfaced easily with white Americans. In the minds of Chávez supporters, as one subject memorably remarks, “Our people work at the golf course; they don’t play golf. Who does this guy think he is?”
The documentary expertly bobs and weaves through these different time periods, charting the two men’s upbringings, their introductions to boxing, and how they each rose to the top. We meet the men in frank present day interviews, and we also receive talking head input from their relatives, friends, and sports commentators. A couple of famous fans also weigh in, including the actor Mario Lopez, who lends a familiar face to the discussion of what De La Hoya and Chávez meant to Mexican households. Throughout, it’s clear that Longoria Bastón, who sometimes includes her questions from behind the camera, is a natural at making the subjects — regardless of their level of fame — feel comfortable.
Intermittently, the documentary reminds us that it’s building toward a boisterous climax: a critical fight between Chávez and De La Hoya that defined both of their careers. That the lead-up to this momentous event is woven in fragments throughout the movie — rather than teased at the beginning and then followed up on at the end, as is traditional for sports documentaries — is a rather bold structural choice, and it’s a testament to Longoria Bastón’s control of the movie’s mounting tension that it works. The main reason, we come to understand, is that this supposedly grand, historic fight wasn’t really a pivotal event at all. It doesn’t matter who wins. Afterward, the cultural chasm between these two sides remained intact.
In the documentary’s most powerful sequence, Chávez lists all of the artifacts of fame and fortune that he once dreamed of calling his own: yachts, sports cars, mansions, private jets, screaming admirers. At the height of his success, Chávez had it all. But for some reason, he still felt empty and alone, and frequently turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. De La Hoya also suffered bouts of depression, particularly when he felt acutely the rejection by the Mexican sports fans whose approval he craved.
The men always appear separately; the only time they share the screen is during archival footage of them in the ring. Despite this, they seem to have a lingering fondness and compassion for one another. De La Hoya, for his part, worshiped the older, more experienced Chávez. As a Mexican-American boxing hopeful, De La Hoya saw Chávez as his hero. Chávez, too, seems to nurse a soft spot for the hunky “golden boy” of boxing — at one point he says with an affectionate chuckle, “He had a pretty face back then. He wasn’t ugly like he is now.”
On multiple occasions, I found myself wishing that Longoria Bastón had found a way to sit the men down together for an interview. Would they bond over their parallel experiences or debate one another? Would Chávez razz his boyish heir apparent or show him respect? Both of these men felt strongly that they had to prove themselves — and throwing punches, a macho cliche, always seemed like the best way. Comfortably in retirement, and, in the case of Chávez, conscientiously sober, did all the valor pay off?
Individual talking head interviews are useful, but here, they can also be a drawback, isolating the very characters whose alternating intimacy and rivalry is the subject of the documentary. If a central issue for both Chávez and De La Hoya was a deeply suppressed insecurity — a feeling that nobody, except perhaps each other, could precisely relate to — “La Guerra Civil” tends to reproduce that tension when it could have hashed it out. There’s a frisson of excitement to watching these complex men exchange punches, but it would have been more thrilling still to watch them exchange words.
“La Guerra Civil” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.