A Dominican Wrestling Hero Gets a Biopic to Match His Star Power

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A report by Sandra E. García for the New York Times.

American wrestling has Hulk Hogan, André the Giant, Ric Flair and many other stars. Dominican wrestling has Jack Veneno.

A star wrestler in the Dominican Republic in the 1970s and ’80s (his ring name, Veneno, means “poison” in Spanish), he electrified fans and went toe to toe with the government. Representing the golden era of wrestling there, he managed to make the country fall in love with the sport, whether fans were rooting for the good guy or the bad guy. Now he’s the subject of a project that one Dominican critic has hailed as a major leap for the country’s film industry.

Veneno: La Primera Caída: El Relámpago de Jack” (“Veneno: The First Fall: Jack’s Lightning”), focusing on his rise in the ring, is the opening film in a planned trilogy documenting the life of the wrestler born Rafael Sánchez. Written and directed by Dominicans, the biopic, which was released earlier this year, marries ambitious scope to Hollywood production values. Those are still rare qualities in the country’s film scene, even though it has experienced a boom in the last five years, producing more than 100 films in that time.

“‘Veneno’ is a solid product that represents a significant step forward for the Dominican film industry,” the movie critic Andy Martinez Nuñez wrote. The movie has “a talented cast, director, careful editing and a script written with even more care,” he added.

The biopic chronicles Mr. Sánchez’s experiences as an immigrant who couldn’t find paying work in New York, as a wrestler who lost friends while he grew more successful, and as a television star who refused to let politicians use his wrestling show for their own ends.

“Veneno” also neatly weaves in Dominican culture and folklore, from the fiestas patronales — which are a lot like state fairs — to scenes involving Santeria (which his best friend, the wrestler Relámpago Hernández, hopes will help him in the ring) and corruption (the wrestler is arrested by pro-government forces). The movie even covers the first time Joaquín Balaguer was elected president, and the response of many Dominicans, who believed Balaguer cheated his way into office but who were too fearful of the government to speak out.

“I have been a huge fan of Jack my entire life,” Riccardo Bardellino, who produced the film and is one of its four screenwriters, said by phone, adding, “No one cares more about wrestling than I do.”

It took him seven years to finish, including more than three years spent visiting wrestling circuits to ensure he would tell the story accurately. “We took a lot of care with respecting the work of wrestlers and their moves and who came before them,” Mr. Bardellino said.

He asked Tabaré Blanchard, the main screenwriter, to direct because of his vision for a film that would be true to Dominican culture while telling the story of a major figure in the country.

“I am not a wrestling fan, I am not a Jack Veneno fan, but I am a fan of telling stories,” Mr. Blanchard said from the Dominican Republic. “His story is so big, if we only talk about Jack Veneno and all of the things he did, it is a massive story.”

The director also wanted to bring the Dominican people into the movie and include the Dominican Republic as more than a setting. That’s why he took a few liberties with the story, moving young Jack from the capital, Santo Domingo, to a town named Ocoa, allowing the film to include the fairs that traveled to the island from the United States.

“Back in those days, in small towns, they didn’t have theaters, they had fairs,” Mr. Blanchard said. Circus owners would “come from the United States and take their traveling acts all around the island with performers, magicians and also a small theater,” he said.

In real life Mr. Sánchez’s father took him when he was 11 to a Santo Domingo cinema to watch a film of the Mexican wrestler El Santo, or the Saint. It was the definitive moment in his life: The movie inspired Mr. Sánchez to become a wrestler.

Just as El Santo inspired Mr. Sánchez, Jack Veneno inspired Manny Perez, the actor who plays him onscreen. Mr. Perez remembers as an 8-year-old seeing Jack Veneno “flying side to side in the ring.”

 

Mr. Perez remembers running home to squeeze between two of his 10 older siblings and watch Jack Veneno on their black-and-white television in the small town of Baitoa.

“I was born to play this role,” said Mr. Perez, who bears a striking resemblance to the wrestler. “We didn’t have water or electricity in my town, but the few times that we had electricity it was usually Saturday afternoons,” he said by phone.

“That’s when Jack Veneno was on,” he added excitedly. “We didn’t have anything, but when I watched him on TV I felt rich.”

The filmmakers hope to reach Dominicans old enough to remember getting excited about Jack Veneno, and at least one viewer said the film reminded him of summers spent in the country as a child. “It took me back,” said M. Tony Peralta, a contemporary artist and designer who focuses on Dominican heritage and how it folds into New York City culture. He added, “Jack Veneno is the closest thing to a superhero that we have. As a Dominican American I don’t see representation of my culture and people that look like me in the American media, but in the Dominican Republic we have Jack Veneno and Relámpago Hernández,” his friend turned rival.

Jack Veneno managed to reach heights unseen in Dominican wrestling. In 1982 he faced Ric Flair, a wrestling megastar at the time, in a controversial National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship match. In the Dominican Republic, Jack Veneno was celebrated as the victor, but the wrestling organization does not acknowledge the win. Still, the fight added to the legend that a young Dominican boy from Ocoa could travel far.

Today Jack Veneno, 76, lives in the Dominican Republic and rarely talks about his days in the ring. But he has seen the film (he has a Stan Lee-esque cameo in it). “I am very proud of this movie,” he said, citing the acting especially.

 

Mr. Blanchard said the next two films — which have not been completed yet — will look at Jack Veneno’s ambition and accomplishments in a stylized way that also exalts Dominican culture. Part 2 will focus specifically on his TV show about wrestling.

“Back then that was our entertainment,” Mr. Perez said. “Now it is a part our history.”

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