Underneath the flurry of sequined panda bear masks, butterfly wings, actual monkey suits, and lamé capes of Mexico's beloved wrestlers, there are lives at stake, portrayed with varying degrees of success in Lucha Mexico. The documentary opens at FilmBar on Friday, July 15, playing only twice, and also at Sonora Cinemas, where you can catch it until July 21.
Directors Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz profile a large number of wrestlers who've made careers out of getting into the ring and, with a mix of gladiatorial pugilism and balletic choreography, entertain hordes of people at large arenas and slapdash stages across Mexico. There's an obvious anthropologic curiosity when the lens turns to the audiences where little girls clap excitedly at violence, old women shake their heads in disappointment, and grown men jeer at rival wrestlers. Why do we revel in the schadenfreude of a good pummeling?
We never find out in Lucha Mexico, but the consumers aren't the real meat of the movie — that honor goes to the beefy performers who eat multiple chickens and steaks at one sitting after a daily workout in a mask. The iconic glammed-out S&M hood of the wrestlers is a big point of pride for a majority of performers profiled in the film. Blue Demon Jr., son of the famous wrestler father of the same name, says that he wears his mask 18 hours a day, which leads to a lonely life devoid of the hot babes and parties of the public's imaginations.
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Fabian el Gitano owns a gym where the guys work out and wrestled multiple times each week before a tragic match where his opponent tore off Gitano's mask. Gitano is a handsome man (which came in handy in his sometimes work as a Chippendale's dancer when times got tough), but tears glimmer in his eyes when he's stripped of his fantasy personality, one of the oddly emotional moments in Lucha Mexico. He never regains his career after his undoing, and Gitano dies shortly thereafter from a suspected combination of drugs and sleeping pills. One of the other wrestlers momentarily references how it's common for performers to need some medication to help them sleep at night, but Lucha Mexico doesn't really get into that, either.
Gitano's isn't the only demise covered in the film. Perro Aguayo developed a more extreme form of the sport in conjunction with Mexico's (and the world's) social unrest in response to economic disparity apparent in the last eight years. Aguayo's wrestlers did all of the usual stunts — body slamming opponents, rocketing through ring ropes — but they did it on tacks or broken glass or beat each other with metal chairs. Desperate people wanted desperate fights, a point too briefly touched on in the film. Aguayo died after a kick to the cervical area of the spine leveled him in the ring. Almost inconceivably, the filmmakers didn't track down the guy who delivered the fatal blow, Rey Mysterio, nor did they reference any possible attempt to do so.
The big problem with Lucha Mexico is that it comes off as an unfinished match. The loneliness of a masked life is mentioned, then ignored. The pain after being robbed of a celebrity identity is given a few minutes but ultimately forgotten. The notion of fame, so different in Mexico where performers want to maintain their anonymity, as opposed to America, where reality television is an almost sci-fi extrapolation of the American Dream, is flirted with and then left out in the cold.
Part of the difficulty of getting a closer look at any of these subjects lies in the need for a stronger editing hand. We meet a full stable of wrestlers, who each have something insightful to say — except the American Jon Andersen, who joins the Lucha Libre world when he's not doing professional lifting events. (Luckily, the filmmakers' lack of follow-through works in their favor here given Andersen's uninteresting patter, but still, an American moving into a Mexican cultural form is a tantalizing metaphor for how the two countries interact with each other on the political scale.) By trying to cover everything, including a short look at women wrestlers, they cover nothing with any lasting satisfaction.
The one exception is Shocker. Performing without a mask, Shocker, also known as 1,000% Guapo, gained stardom in Mexico, playing to crowds of thousands at large arenas throughout the country, but success in the business doesn't come without its cost. Over the course of the movie's near two hours, we learn that he's struggled with drinking and depression. He also suffers a knee injury that keeps him out of the ring for six months, during which time he opens a restaurant. Shocker, like his colleagues, knows that time as a wrestler is short, and it's best to have some kind of backup plan — assuming you live that long. When he comes back to the stage after his injury, he's a little heavier, a little slower, and while there's something palpably tragic about his appearances at small-town festivals where maybe 100 people show up, we also get the sense that even in diminished circumstances, he's a happier man in the fight than out of it.
Lucha Mexico opens on Friday, July 15, at Film Bar, 815 North Second Street, and also plays on Sunday, July 17. Visit www.thefilmbarphx for showtimes. Lucha Mexico also opens Friday at Sonora Cinemas, 7611 West Thomas Road, and plays until July 21. Visit www.sonoracinemas.com for showtimes.