Dir.: Robert Kolodny; Cast: James Madio, Lawrence Gilliard jr., Stephen Lang, Keir Gilchrist, Ruby Wolf, Shari Albert, Imma Allielo, Gordon Silva, Ron Livingstone, Ron Livingstone; USA 2023, 99 min.
US filmmaker Robert Kolodny also creates some impressive visuals of decay in this docu-drama, written by Steve Loff.
The Featherweight, his first feature, looks at the failed comeback of ex-world champion featherweight Willie “Pep” (Madio), considered one of the best fighters of the 20th century and famed for his speed, finesse and elusiveness in the ring. But his return to the ring ruined his marriage and career prospects in the midst of a poisonous family atmosphere in his home town of Hartford /CT, a mere two hours train ride away from New York, but in another universe from the throbbing metropolis.
Where Martin Scorsese and others still see some romantic yearning in the fighters portrayed, Kolodny shows just disillusionment and fractured family relationships. Born Gugliemo Papaleo in 1922, the sportsman had a terrible time at the hands of his violent father Salvatore (Silva) and his tyrannical Mama (Allielo) and their drug dependent son Billy (Gilchrist). Sister Fran (Albert) seems a voice of reason, even though she can take on all others when it comes to prejudice and conspiracy theories.
The family home is a den of psychological violence where Linda (Wolf), Willie’s much younger wife, tries to escape for a acting career in New York. The jealous boxer does his best to sabotage her efforts. Having won 229 out of 241 fights he has managed to hold on to world championship in his weight class for years.
Gambling eats away at Pep’s finances and he is broke by the age of 42, six years after retirement. Against the advice of his manager Bob Kaplan (Livingstone) Pep plans a comeback, aided and abetted by his trainer Stephen Lang (Gore). All the people in his circle during Pep’s career have little influence on the boxer or his actions – but Sandy Saddler (Gilliard jr), who took the world title from Pep, before losing in the return fight, has an emotional relationship with Pep.
Salvatore emerges a violent, manipulative brute who took the children away from his wife for a time. When young Pep lost his shoe-shining spot to an older boy, Salvatore told Pep to fight his corner – or he would have a much bigger battle on his hands. Somehow this story colours the whole film, Pep feeling guilty about his father’s death – rather than liberation from his tormentor. But his treatment of Linda sadly shows he has inherited his controlling and jealous misogyny.
Kolodny reveals the broken heartlands of the USA: Hartford has been left to rot, like many towns which have fallen by the wayside. Pep is a symbol of this decline: he will end up begging for jobs at Hilton hotels in remote locations. No wonder he wants to return to the ring, the only place he shone, and counted at his home. Hartford is an industrial wasteland, and Pep goes out of the frying pan and into the fire, exchanging his training for a comeback in a dump of a ring in Miami.
The Featherweight leaves nothing to the imagination: Pep is just a step away from his ancestors from Sicily: violence, physical and psychological, are the only ways he knows how to solve a conflict. One roots for Linda in the hope she will make her escape to New York. Pep, on the other hand, will always be on the losing side: in his family battles and his comeback. A dark, disheartening tale of relegation and loss. AS
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | HORIZONS 2023