A man’s gotta have skills. Unfortunately, Brother Ignacio, known simply as Nacho to his friends, has none. He cooks food for destitute orphans in rural Mexico, but he longs for bigger things—particularly glory in the arena of Lucha Libre, the uniquely Mexican form of wrestling in which masked men do battle for honor. Hoping to impress a newly arrived teacher, Sister Encarnación, and to raise money for the orphanage, Nacho dons a mask, cape and tights and becomes Nacho Libre, wrestling hero. Or not. Along with his rail-thin sidekick called Esqueleto (Skeleton), he loses fight after fight.
To hit the big time and become a pro luchador—and, incidentally, to raise enough money to buy the orphanage a school bus—Nacho must win a wrestling match with a true hero of the square circle, the fearsome, gold-masked Ramses, a towering brute who deigns to humor amateurs who dare challenge him.
Nacho is a big-hearted underdog who genuinely loves the orphans under his care (and wants to serve them salad instead of slop). Even though his motivations sometimes waver—is he really out to help the orphans, or does he mostly want personal glory?—in the end he does the right thing and even prays for God’s help in doing it.
Sister Encarnación is the model of Christian charity. She also brings a balance of sorts to Nacho’s infatuation with competition, denouncing his obsession with wrestling and wrestling stars: “Wrestling is ungodly. The people worship these men like false idols. Lucha Libre is a sin because these men fight for vanity, money and false pride.”
Nacho tries to get on her good side by “agreeing” and telling the orphans, only half-heartedly, “It’s in the Bible. Never wrestle your neighbors.” Later, Sister Encarnación qualifies her judgment when she learns that Nacho is wrestling to raise money for the orphanage. “If you fight for something noble, something right,” she tells him, “only then will God bless you.”
The movie’s theme song is “I Am a Religious Man,” and the main setting is a Roman Catholic orphanage and church. Nacho and Guillermo are friars, and we frequently see religious icons such as paintings, statues and rosaries. We also hear frequent blessings such as “God be with you.” When it comes to the final showdown against Ramses, Nacho says, “I will win because our Heavenly Father will be in the ring with me.” Earlier, feeling undervalued by his fellow friars, Nacho crudely exclaims, “[The Brothers] don’t think I know a butt-load of crap about the gospel, but I do!”
When Sister Encarnación is introduced, the priest says, “God has blessed us with a new teacher.” Sister Encarnación says, “I like serving the Lord.” Nacho explains that his mother was a Lutheran missionary from Scandinavia, and his father a Catholic kid from Mexico. “They tried to convert each other,” he says. Sent to pray for someone he believes to be dead, Nacho intones, “Holy Father, please receive this man into your kingdom.” (It turns out the man is just asleep.)
Nacho tries to recruit Esqueleto to his cause by saying, “Brother, I am concerned about your salvation,” and forcibly “baptizing” him. Esqueleto, for his part, maintains, “I do not believe in God. I believe in science.” Ironically, that does not prevent Esqueleto from suggesting that Nacho eat a supposedly magical eagle egg to gain power. Nacho does so—to no avail.
In the ring, a tag-team of little people is called Satan’s Cavemen.
Nacho and Guillermo vie for the attention of Sister Encarnación, and while this rivalry is mostly chaste and humorously innocent, it doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re both friars and she’s a nun. Nacho asks her, “Have you ever had feelings for a man?” He also talks of them both breaking their vows so they can get married and produce “little niños.” And he goes out of his way to wear tight-fitting clothes during one of their “dates” (she thinks they’re going into town on an evangelistic mission) and positions himself so that he can show off his ample buttocks to her (and the camera). Still, he seems protective of her reputation, worrying at one point if people will think she’s “a floozy.” (For the record, she’s as opposite of floozy as it’s possible to be.)
An aggressive woman tries to seduce Esqueleto, physically dragging him across the floor in her passion. She remarks, “Some say wrestlers make bad lovers because they save themselves for the ring.”
Pile-drivers. Flying leaps off the turnbuckle. Back-breaking drop-kicks. Clothesline tackles and metal chairs whacked across heads. The wrestling violence in this film pushes the PG rating to the extreme, particularly because it’s played for real. (In the U.S., by way of contrast, World Wrestling Entertainment makes it clear that its bouts are choreographed theater, not street fights.) Several wrestlers pull Esqueleto’s hair out in large tufts—one using his teeth—and another tag-team whips Nacho with heavy leather belts. And that’s after you get the routine head-butts, punches to the face and gut, and kicks to the crotch. Ramses pins Nacho to the mat with his ample boot on his throat. Even outside the ring Ramses is violent, shoving Nacho out of the way when he asks for an autograph for the orphans.
Speaking of off-the-mat violence, A man confronts Nacho with a switchblade after slicing the tires on the friar’s tricycle/moped/go cart/shopping cart. Esqueleto saves him by throwing a corncob at the man, and we see the cob embedded in the man’s eye socket. Nacho and Esqueleto train for their wrestling matches by pummeling each other with melons, arrows and a live hornet’s nest. They also deliberately tangle with an angry bull. Nacho’s robe accidentally catches fire, and he runs screaming from the church in flames before dropping to the ground and rolling. (He’s unharmed.)
Nacho loses control of his “tricycle” and wrecks on the side of the road. Nacho tries to rescue Esqueleto from his aggressive “admirer” by smashing what looks like a cello over her. (He misses and hits Esqueleto instead.)
Nacho says “dang” and calls a man a “douche.”
People drink wine at a party.
Nacho steals the clothing he uses to fashion his wrestling costume. And he lies to Sister Encarnación and the orphans about his Lucha Libre moonlighting.
While “training” with Esqueleto, Nacho picks up cow dung and smears it on his friend’s face. A running gag involves Nacho’s flatulence, including one scene with him sitting on a toilet. A friar complains about Nacho’s cooking, saying, “I’ve had diarrhea since Easter.” Nacho snorts food out his nose.
Lucha Libre, which translates into English as free fighting, was introduced south of the border in the 1930s by an American promoter and became wildly popular almost immediately because it tapped into deep cultural roots. “The Lucha mask is a symbol of strength and empowerment in the Mexican and Chicano culture,” explains Michelle Martinez of the Department of Chicano Studies at Arizona State University. “The mask goes back to Aztec and Mayan times and also brought the luchador to the superhero level. It gave them this larger-than-human appeal.”
Lucha culture peaked in the 1950s with the ascendancy of El Santo, el Enmascarado de Plata (Santo, the Silver-Masked Man), and other stars such as Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras (Thousand Masks). These men starred in comic books and movies, battling everyone from Dracula and the Daughter of Frankenstein to the Mummies of Guanajuato.
The concept of the mask became so sacred in Lucha culture that to be unmasked is to be dishonored. In fact, El Santo, whose real name was Adolfo Guzman Huerta, never appeared in public without his mask and was buried in his headgear when he died in 1984.
So, with such a rich cultural history to play on, you’d think Nacho Libre would be a better film. Written and directed by Jared Hess, who surprised the moviegoing world with the super-low-budget hit Napoleon Dynamite in 2004, this film has some of the same corny, off-kilter humor, but it’s wildly uneven, not sure what kind of movie it wants to be. Another Napoleon? A Jackie Chan send-up? Another ham-it-up School session for Jack Black?
In the end, it’s none of these. But—and this is a big but—kids, teens and young-at-heart adults will still be drawn to Nacho Libre precisely because of the Napoleon connection. This time, however, they won’t get a goofy but mostly harmless nerd; they’ll get extreme, imitative violence that’s all the more problematic because the wrestling moves, performed here by professional stuntmen, give no indication of how truly dangerous they are. Throw in Johnny Knoxville-style stupidity, some gratuitous gross-out gags and gentle but still icky sexual tension between a friar and a nun, and it becomes painfully obvious that this Nacho is no tater tot.