Professional wrestling has been called the poor man’s theatre and has long been cited as an example of low culture. Some people like to emphasize that it’s fake, while others like to argue that it’s a sport. You can either dismiss it as throwaway entertainment or be thrilled by the action and colorful characters. There isn’t much room for a middle ground.
Say what you will about professional wrestling, if you give it a chance and watch enough characters fly off the top rope, the spectacle can be intoxicating. While Vince McMahon’s WWE has made a steady dent in American pop culture for decades, professional wresting in Mexico is a distinct phenomenon all its own, full of stories of colorful characters that have remained virtually untold outside of the country. Tales of the Masked Men, now available on DVD, is a one-hour documentary that provides a wonderful introduction into the spectacular world of the lucha libre style of wresting. The film originally aired as a part of VOCES on PBS, the public broadcasting station’s series on Latino arts and culture.
The documentary is directed by Carlos Avila. Avila, who aside from directing an episode of television’s Cold Case, created the stunning half-hour PBS drama series Foto-Novelas, does a more than adequate job moving swiftly while maintaining polished production values. His efficiency seems to be his biggest strength.
The movie promises “a journey through lucha libre” and it certainly delivers that. In 55 quick minutes, the film traces the beginnings of lucha libre from the early ‘30s to today. It moves purposely and rapidly but never at a breakneck pace that might leave you feeling lost.
It spends the majority of its time spotlighting three of the most prominent lucha libre wrestlers. The iconic legacy of El Santo, the famous “mini” wrestler Mascarita Sagrada, and celebrated veteran Solar are all discussed at length. These three profiles serve to provide accurate, varied snapshots of a few of the most memorable, respected movers and shakers in the beloved sport’s history.
El Santo, the industry’s most legendary masked superstar is the first to be highlighted. The film briefly analyzes not only on his ties to the origins of lucha libre and his overwhelming popularity in the ring but also his appearance in over 50 seemingly bizarre fantasy/adventure movies like La Bruja Maloitathat made him an internationally-known action hero of sorts and a walking symbol of the triumph of good over evil. Since he remained, not only the sport’s biggest icon, but also, by all the film’s accounts, generous and humble until his death in 1984, his presence was essential to the documentary’s success.
In Tales of Masked Men, “minis” or “midget wrestling”, as the sensation has been called in Mexico since the ‘40s, is also examined with balance and respect. Mascarita Sagrada, a famous 4’ 5” wrestler, uses his dynamic masked identity to make him one of the sports biggest stars, little person or otherwise. Mascarita Sagrada tells a powerful story about overcoming odds, having an indomitable spirit, and finding purpose in life as a successful “mini”. As he says in an original interview for the film, “You don’t have to be big to do big things.”
It’s quickly obvious that the strangely mesmerizing topic of “midget wrestling” could easily become its own feature length documentary and it’s doubtful that the hot-button topic has ever been handled with such care and class. It’s fascinating to hear both wrestlers and fans of “minis” discuss how success in the ring has lead to better equality and understanding of little people nationwide.
Solar, a living legend in his fourth decade as a wrestler, gets the third and final spotlight, which works as a clever connecting point from the sports earlier megastars to the masked living legends of today to the future of the theatrical sport. Solar’s tale, like the others, beautifully portrays his devotion to the fans, arriving early at an event to spend time with the locals, for example, despite some less than stellar working conditions. Much of the camera time with Solar is also spent discussing the intriguing opportunity he has within the world of lucha libre to pass his character, mask, and entire legacy on to his son, who is currently competing as Solar Jr.
Most of the dialogue, logically, is in Spanish with English subtitles. Plenty of archival photos and video footage helps the stories come alive. Even old audio interviews of El Santo appear and flesh out his persona.
Oddly enough, photographers, sociologists, cultural anthropologists, journalists, and screenwriters, for example, get as much screen time as almost any experienced wrestler. These talking heads wax poetically about the sport and its impact, though the credibility of a couple of the interviewees is often ambiguous at best.
It sounds simple, but perhaps the most worthwhile observation about lucha libre from these spectators is the argument that the appeal of the sport is the exaggerated theatrics of the struggle between good and evil. Understandably, it’s the in-ring performers that deliver the most valuable reflections and remarkable stories.
A small luchador named Angel Mondragon provides the most entertaining insights on camera, mostly likely since he spent hours in the ring with these legends. For example, midway through the film, Mascarita Sagrada shows a lot of camaraderie with the jesting Mondragon, one of his mentors. In one of the most lighthearted moments of Tales of Masked Men, Mondragon jokes with Mascarita Sagrada about his start in the business. Mondragon hits his friend on the shoulder and chuckles, “You thought it was going to be easy!”
Miguel Sandoval, a character actor whose work is as varied as Do the Right Thing, Seinfeld ,Jurassic Park, and Entourage, does an incredible job as the film’s narrator. Sandoval’s resonant voice is so steadfast and authoritative that it certainly lends a sense of refined credibility to the documentary.
The talented Avila weaves in the right historical anecdotes along the way, mentioning Antonio Martinez’s design of the luchador mask style that’s still used today and an efficient analysis of how the lucha libre mask ties it to pre-Hispanic cultural celebrations. The sport’s reliance on an expressive participatory audience is an unexpectedly charming yet pervasive theme. There’s also a delightful reoccurring suggestion presented that these mask and cape wearing heroes of Mexico are like comic book panels come to life, which certainly seems likely by the film’s conclusion.
Ideally, documentaries should strike the perfect balance between being informative and entertaining. Tales of the Masked Men is wonderfully illuminating; it’s probably more informative than your average PBS program, which, of course, is really saying something. Do you know the stark difference between technicos and rudos? [They’re good guys and bad guys, respectively, which certainly helps quickly build in-ring conflict.] Did you know that lucha libre means “free fight” or “free struggle” or that a masked wrestler or “enmascarado” might wear his mask in all areas of his public life? The film will teach you these sorts of things. Yet, for a movie about the impact of colorfully masked wrestlers, it’s a bit lacking in thrills, laughs, and drama.
Ultimately, Avila captures the flash and devotion surrounding the sport and its milestones, but fails to fully capture the fun of the wrestling matches that has assuredly made lucha libre such a draw for eighty years. The documentary quenches a thirst for knowledge about this “deeply Mexican spectacle”, but its delivery is sometimes too dry. As the film claims, the world of lucha libre is part theatre, part sport, and part circus. You don’t get enough of a feel of any of those energetic elements. The opening minutes show several minutes of rapidly edited shots of throws, flips, dropkicks, hurricanranas and raving fans, but the film never completely returns to that level of intensity or sheer entertainment. Though, it does make up for that, in a way, with its cultural insights and captivating stories.
With such a condensed run time, despite some superb direction that packs a lot of material in, Tales of Masked Men can hardly do the subject justice, but the documentary unquestionably succeeds in presenting a meaningful introduction to the sport. To its credit, it’ll leave you wanting more.
Sadly, there are no extras on the disc to give you more. Surely, there could have been more about the masked wrestlers to reveal as special features.