Nacho Libre

Nacho Libre. Paramount Pictures 2006.

Before watching the movie:

I’m fairly confident this was the first time I’d heard of Jack Black. I’d heard a lot about Shallow Hal, but since Malcolm in the Middle was such a big presence in my life at the time, my brain kept putting Bryan Cranston in the title role. So with Nacho Libre, Jack Black entered my consciousness as someone new, yet someone I apparently should have already known about.  So I was completely lost later when Tenacious D got a movie and was apparently a well-established band already. And this time it was real, unlike my early confusion about Galaxy Quest.

Anyway, here’s a cult movie about a white guy rising to the top in a Mexican cultural institution from the age where taboo topics were permissible, but insensitivity was in fashion. So I’m hoping this will be fun, but it’s got some hurdles to clear.

After watching the movie:

Ignacio grew up in an Oaxacan monastic orphanage, dreaming of being a luchador but forbidden by the brothers as sinful vanity. Since none of the brothers of the monastery believe him capable of anything, his main duty at the orphanage is to make the food for the brothers and the orphans, but he isn’t given enough money for good ingredients. Conflicted about his feelings for the new teacher, Sister Encarnación, and pushed to his limit by the brothers of the orphanage, Ignacio runs away to the city to secretly become a luchador and get the respect he doesn’t get at home. Despite never winning, he’s paid very well as a crowd favorite and puts a lot of his money into providing for the children at the orphanage. But to win, he’ll need professional training, and if he’s found out, he’ll be dismissed from the orphanage.

I don’t have the best ear for comedy accents, but all of them seemed sincere and respectful for the most part. Aside from Jack Black, who’s made up to look more Latino than he naturally does (which could be problematic if one considers any portrayal outside one’s own race offensive regardless of tone), pretty much everyone seems to be Latinx actors. It feels to me like an earnest Mexican movie for an American audience that happens to have Jack Black in the lead. The only terrible stereotype was the “water Gypsy” who appears in one scene and tricks Ignacio into doing a stupid and risky thing that doesn’t work.

Impressively, despite giving Ignacio a love interest, the story lets him and Incarnación remain faithful to their vows, making this the most chaste love story I’ve ever seen for a movie of this tone. There’s not much made at the expense of anyone’s faith or beliefs. Though Ignacio and his wrestling partner Esqueleto bicker about science and religion, they don’t really get into it beyond “I only believe in science”.

Ignacio gets called fat once or twice, but he seems to have a natural wrestler’s body: muscle covered by a protective layer of fat. Aside from some dubbed farts, I can’t think of many actual fat jokes at his expense, and none at the expense of the round kid at the orphanage who looks up to him. There is a very large woman who takes a liking to Esqueleto that’s played for comic horror, but I almost forgot about her because of how inconsequential she is.

This story doesn’t hit the beats one might expect it to, but it hits the beats that are appropriate to its characters. While I remember the promotional material positioning it as the loud, offensive kind of movie that was popular at the time, it seems fairly respectful to me and I think if it did poorly at the time, it’s because it wasn’t as abrasive as audiences wanted it to be, and that seems to equip it to be received better now.

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