Venice Film Fest 2023 Review: Robert Kolodny’s “The Featherweight” Doesn’t Pull Punches

You don’t see a lot of Willie Pep (James Madio) in a boxing ring by design in “The Featherweight,” though you imagine that how he racked up wins and a reputation as the greatest fighter in his weight class of all time was being scrappy and slippery when “scrawny” would be another adjective that would apply. Somehow he’s the least imposing person you see at a social club in Hartford, Connecticut at the start of Robert Kolodny’s cunning biography and still the youngest – at 42, he’s among retirees at least twenty years his senior, but given the career he had, he’s the one with all the stories, making the place as enjoyable as somewhere to relax as it is in allowing him to be the center of attention. It’s why there’s not a lot of explanation needed for how he could be convinced to have cameras rolling as he embarks on a comeback bid, filmed by the Zupan brothers who are left unseen but whose camerawork strongly resembles their contemporaries in the 1960s of Albert and David Maysles, and rarely asks to have them turned off when things go south.

It would be easy to describe “The Featherweight” as a mockumentary, but when the term is apt to conjure up thoughts about its sense of humor as much as its style, Kolodny and screenwriter Steve Loff are after something a little bit sadder and psychologically probing as the real-life Pep faces his worst nightmare in a life where he can no longer knock down any of his opponents with a punch. His father lies in a hospital comatose, which is the least of Willie’s issues when no one in the rest of his family gets along largely because of him – while he has a loving mother (Imma Aiello), she would’ve preferred he married an Italian woman for his fourth wife, and any other partner would’ve been just fine by his son Billy Jr. (Keir Gilchrist), who is nearly the same age as the woman he did marry, Linda (Ruby Wolf), and abhors the attention she gets from him when he’s barely ever received any. If his family wasn’t enough of a headache, Willie’s also got bills to pay without the steady income that his fights once provided, leaving the indignity of applying for jobs in hospitality where he’d be starting as an assistant manager.

When telling of a boxer who got by with his brain rather than his brawn, “The Featherweight” couldn’t take after its lead character any more, pulling off a seamless period piece with uncanny era-specific cinematography – Kolodny’s specialty before this directorial debut – and the handiwork of editor Robert Greene, for whom he shot “Procession,” that blends archival footage from the time with the scenes shot for the film. (Both Sonia Foltarz’s production design and Naomi Wolff Lachter’s costumes are equally convincing and rich with texture.) There have been other stories about the post-professional struggles of athletes, but the style of “The Featherweight” is particularly effective when it is exposed enough to show how mythmaking works — taking something true and building a fiction on top of it — and observes how much it’s cost Willie to buy into his own legend and fights these days only for relevance.

The format also allows for the usual playfulness of peeking behind the curtain, particularly when it comes to Linda, who naturally harbored dreams of being an actress before Willie swept her away to a quieter life than either had likely hoped in Hartford, and finally seizes her opportunity to get back in front of the camera. Wolf, the actress playing her, constantly threatens to steal the film as much as her character does, and it’s a good problem that “The Featherweight” has throughout when a series of acting heavyweights pop up in sharp supporting turns, whether it’s Ron Livingston as Willie’s long-suffering manager, Stephen Lang as his steely trainer or Lawrence Gilliard Jr., his greatest opponent who beat him three times out of four in the ring yet still wasn’t regarded as highly as he was. However, for all the beatings Willie endures in “The Featherweight,” Madio really does take them like a champ, a particularly rewarding performance for someone who’s been doing wonderful supporting work for years and makes the most out of his star turn. There may be no good reason to believe that Willie still has any fight left in him, but Madio wouldn’t let you think otherwise.

“The Featherweight” will screen again at the Venice Film Festival on September 4th at 1:30 pm at the Palabiennale.

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