Sunday, October 07, 2007

Nacho Libre

Nacho Libre posterNacho Libre is director Jared Hess's second film. His first was Napoleon Dynamite, and what the two have in common is a certain absurdist humor found in the quirks of settings that are just off the beaten path, and so slightly behind the times. In Napoleon Dynamite, that setting is Preston, Idaho; in Nacho Libre, it is Oaxaca, Mexico.

Hess's comedy is sufficiently understated that it's not even completely clear whether or not Nacho Libre is meant to be a period piece. It is suffused with the aura of the 1970s, not least in lead character Nacho's choice of what he terms "recreation clothes": a thin pastel blue sweater plus cream slacks. Nacho is a rather unsuccessful monk with dreams of becoming a lucha libre fighter so he can afford better ingredients for the dinners her serves up to the monastery's orphans. On the side, he also has more than a passing fancy for the new nun in town, Encarnación. So he eagerly casts off old habits and enters the world of spectacle that is Mexican wrestling: a world of masked avengers and dreadful sartorial taste. But again, it's not certain whether his penchant for "stretchy pants" and frilly blouses (in a scene at the local wrestling promoter's elaborately decorated residence) is a function of period or location. Either way, the film seems to reverse L P Hartley's famous observation that "the past is another country; they do things differently there." Here there do things differently in Mexico because it has the aura of the past.

Nacho Libre still
But this a past that is treated with delight and nostalgia. Nacho Libre is a strangely quaint and understated movie. And that's true even with Jack Black playing Nacho's role, and despite the fact that so much of the comedy is slapstick: fart jokes, turd jokes, midget wrestler jokes, and all. For the pacing is slow, at times even stately. Scenes often begin with what is almost a still image, foregrounding characters against countryside or architecture in a style almost reminiscent of Eisenstein's ¡Que Viva Mexico!, were it not for the notable use also of vibrant, saturated color. Then after a gag, Hess's editing almost always holds the shot for an extra beat, a pause in which nothing really happens except that we both register the joke and also the fact that it has no real consequence. In the Mexico that the film depicts, what seems comic to us is merely everyday reality.

So the paradoxical result of the movie is that despite, for instance, Jack Black's relentless deployment of a comic faux-Mexican accent, or co-star Héctor Jímenez's initial portrayal as a semi-feral beast scratching for nacho chips in a dirty back alley, or even the ambience of the wrestling world itself, with its high camp and low blows, the Oaxaca that the film presents is homely rather than ludicrous, sentimental rather than savage. It's as though Mexico incarnated all our yesterdays, or perhaps (like small-town Idaho) a place we might inhabit, and might even still want to inhabit, if it weren't that fate had led us elsewhere.

YouTube Link: the film trailer.

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