January 24, 2008

Orthodox Stance

Spunky doc swings away with potent if uneven blend of Hebrews and haymakers

By Michelle Orange

Jimmy O'Pharrow is a 79-year-old Brooklyn boxing coach straight out of central casting: he's got the newsboy cap, the rangy frame, the winning smile and smooth-talking patter of a champ-maker, which bodes well for Orthodox Stance, Jason Hutt's chronicle of a young boxer on the make. Dmitriy Salita is the boxer in question; born in Odessa, Ukraine but raised in Brooklyn, Salita and his older brother turned to boxing to restore some confidence after the bullying they were subjected to at school. 20 years old when the documentary begins, Salita is gangly, pale and fiercely protected by O'Pharrow, who has seen his protégé through an amateur career; Salita is on the brink of turning pro. "Kid looks Russian, prays Jewish and fights black," O'Pharrow has said.

The title refers to Salita's conversion to Orthodox Judaism shortly after his mother succumbed to cancer when he was 13 (an Orthodox rabbi happened to frequent her shared hospital room), though the role his faith plays in his boxing career feels relatively unexplored after an initial comparison of the salvation and discipline at the core of both pursuits. The dominant angle, oddly, is the more conventional one of a young athlete's single-minded rise through the ranks and the sacrifices made on the path to greatness. Salita has a small posse of über-Jews (and his brother, who it appears is not a convert) who travel with him to venues like Las Vegas, where a Sabbath fight at Mandalay Bay is vetted only if it takes place after sundown. There is also no compromise on the extremely strict rules of kosher eating, and the hotel room door is taped open so that the key card won't have to be used.

It certainly makes for an unusual story in the boxing world, and Hutt limns the attraction of the sports media to a potentially curious new headliner, along with Salita's growing facility with the attention; we watch him go from throwing the most awkward of finger-guns at a Vegas press conference to expertly (if a little robotically) talking down a journalist in the seasoned sound-bites of a savvy pro athlete. Salita's ambition is driven by the desire to rise above his family's humble station, and fueled, the film implies, at least in part by the discipline and fundamental spirituality of his faith, but the ungainly intersection of those forces is left hanging with the gloves as Salita wins match after match. He quickly dispenses with O'Pharrow for a new, bigger-time trainer, who tries to encourage a killer instinct in the rather zen, doe-eyed fighter. It's a little bittersweet to watch the trainer's dream come true, as our lil' pisher shows definite signs of going Hollywood, indeed acquiring Hilary Swank's Million Dollar trainer, upgrading his photo shoot threads and dispensing with a genuine, show-me-the-money mini-tantrum.

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Scene for scene, Orthodox is somewhat uneven -- for many of the intriguing set pieces (who knew there was so much girlish drama involved in fight weigh-ins?) there are alternately dull sequences, notably a contract negotiation involving lawyers and agents. Hutt gets major props for perseverance, following his subject for over three years an capturing much of the excitement of a dream coming true, but the fight sequences themselves are somewhat lackluster (this is most evident when it appears that television footage of Salita's first title fight is intercut with Hutt's) and Salita himself, while mild and warm-hearted, is also something of a narrative cipher -- even his opponents can't seem to touch him.

The question of his intense and demanding faith (and especially his sudden conversion) falls by the wayside, and occasional footage of him suiting for prayer doesn't do much to assuage that. What is clear is that Hutt's instincts are solid, if occasionally unfocused (sometimes literally at that); he'll be ready to turn pro any day now.

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