John Vourlis had no idea what was happening in his own backyard.
The Wickliffe native moved back home in 2010 from California, where he had been working in the film industry. A friend invited Vourlis to come to the Wickliffe Italian-American Club to check out the Cleveland Challenge Cup of Bocce. Vourlis was surprised to find that the tournament, now in its 35thyear, featured nearly one 100 men’s teams and about 20 women’s from across North America that came to compete for over $17,000 in cash prizes.
Vourlis was fascinated by what it took to host this annual event, so he spent four summers, from 2013 to 2016, filming Challenge Cups, which he then made into the 2017 documentary “Breaking Balls.”
The game of bocce features two players or two teams of up to four players taking turns rolling balls toward a smaller ball. The team which places its balls closest to the target ball receives points. The game continues through a series of frames until one team scores the agreed upon amount of points, usually 15 or 16.
Vourlis says when it comes to playing, don’t let the game’s simplicity fool you.
“As someone in the movie said, ‘it’s a lot easier said than done’ to score. The better the players are, the more strategy about knocking (the balls) of people away. This level of bocce into which the movie delves is much more serious,” said Vourlis.
Not only do they players take the game seriously, so do that volunteers who organize the tournament.
“The Wickliffe Italian-American club has about 200 members. They spend the whole year gearing up for the tournament. In the month leading up to the event three-quarters of them are involved,” Vourlis said.
Much of the film documents these preparations, in particular, the readying of the sand courts where the games are played.
“The courts are like a Zen garden. There’s not a grain of sand out of place. Everything is done with a purpose. There is a very Italian aesthetic. You can see and feel the sense of love and pride that goes into this space. It radiates back through the game,” Vourlis said.
Unlike a lot traditions that immigrants bring to the new world that fade with the passage of time, bocce is alive and well.
“Northeast Ohio has become one of the focal points of the game and that is because, here, grandparents have passed it onto parents, who are passing it onto children. The heart and soul of the film is this passing on of traditions from the old country to the new, “Vourlis said.
“Breaking Balls” debuted at the 2017 Cleveland International Film Festival, where it sold out three screens in one night. The film also played to a packed house at the 2017 Chagrin Documentary Film Festival.
“Breaking Balls” will be screened for a limited run at Atlas Cinemas at Great Lakes Mall from January 12 through January 18.