Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 01 July 2009
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston
The Lost Son of Havana, which chronicles retired Red Sox pitching star and Cuban exile Luis Tiant’s emotional return to his native country after a forty-six year absence, was easily one of IFFB’s big ticket films, with queues forming early and snaking around the block prior to every screening. It was also the only time at this year’s festival that the experience of attending a screening has threatened to overwhelm my recollections of the film itself. Tiant was in attendance and chants of his name erupted from the Boston crowd at regular intervals before and after the film. It’s a scene that’s been tough to shake, albeit not one that was projected onscreen.
Thankfully, director Jonathan Hock’s film offers fine insight into why Tiant’s presence can elicit such a powerful response. The pitcher’s achievements on the field are given just enough of the spotlight, offering fans a refresher and newcomers a crash course. It’s a wise inclusion; I don’t think you need to be a serious baseball fan to find the footage of Tiant’s performance in Game 4 of the 1975 World Series - during which he pitched a complete game victory and even scored the winning run - scintillating.
But there’s more to the story than strikeouts and rosin bags. The circumstances of Tiant’s life are so extraordinary that they can’t help but bring history and politics to the fore—here is a man whose parents were personally allowed out of Cuba by Castro so they could see him pitch in the World Series. Hock uses Tiant’s life and career as a jumping-off point to touch on an array of larger themes: the familial heartaches caused by political exile, the legacy of racism (Tiant’s father “Lefty” Tiant was a talented pitcher who once struck out Babe Ruth, but he was restricted to playing in the Negro League.) and the significance of baseball to both American and Cuban culture. (One of the more fascinating detours comes when Tiant and the film crew visit Havana’s Parque Central, a rare gathering place for citizens to practice free speech in Cuba—permitted that the speech is about baseball.)
The Lost Son of Havana is an intimate film about far-reaching concerns, and its humor and poignancy lie in the details: the film crew must agree to participate in a goodwill baseball game in Cuba in order to be allowed into the country; upon his arrival, Tiant offers his family gifts that are telling in their simplicity—soap, gum, lotion, thread. One detail conflates the pain of family separation with the surreal nature of celebrity in particularly stunning fashion—we hear the story of Tiant’s parents risking serious punishment in order to watch a broadcast of one of their son’s games (beamed in from Florida) and learn that Tiant’s mother repeatedly reached out to touch her son’s image on the screen. Recollections like that manage to haunt, and in a way, speak louder than the loudest chants of “Luis! Luis! Luis!” The desire to go home again is a cliché, but it’s also a powerful thing - Tiant refers to his journey back to Cuba as no less than a way to “complete [his] life” - and the film succeeds in capturing the earnestness, joy, and underlying sorrow of such an occasion.
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