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I am terribly fascinated with "Nacho Libre."

I know my blog has always been in kind of a niche, but I'm wondering if I'm about to dig myself even deeper today by writing about Nacho Libre for the third time.

I just can't help it.  Nacho Libre is a strangely, uniquely, and almost tragically fascinating movie.  I'm not even sure where to begin.

I guess first I should give some background for those who've never heard of it.  I suppose that's possible since some of my audience might very well have still been in diapers when it came out.  (If that's the case, though.... wow.  Do middle schoolers really enjoy reading desperation on the Internet?  Well, come on in, I guess.  Please take off your shoes before you walk on the carpet.)

Y'see, back in 2006, Jared and Jerusha Hess were rising stars.  Their previous film, Napoleon Dynamite, was a major hit and an instant cult classic, garnering nearly universal praise and provoking a decade's worth of uninvited Jon Heder impressions.

For their next film, they received the opportunity of a lifetime: financial backing from Paramount Pictures / Nickelodeon Studios and a commitment from Jack Black in the lead.  This should have been enough to secure a hit.

Nacho Libre was not, though.  It did okay at the box office - 100 million - but not nearly as much as anybody was hoping, especially not in light of its 35 million dollar budget.  And considering the middling-to-poor reviews, it seemed destined to become another cult classic at best, and more likely a forgotten footnote in Black's blazing career.

So.  What went wrong, exactly?  Why isn't everyone wearing Nacho Libre T-Shirts today? I'm hardly the right person to answer that, but I do have one good guess: it's not a kids' movie.

Oh, sure, it was advertised to kids and it doesn't have any dirty language and it was released by Nickelodeon, but this isn't a kids' movie.  Mistake number one, I suppose.  Nickelodeon thought they were getting a goofy slapstick about luchadors.  But the Hesses were working on a heavy-handed religious parable filled with grim poverty and sexual frustration.

The primary character conflict of the movie is Nacho's unattainable lust for a smokin' hot new nun at his church, Sister Encarnacion.  He immediately crushes on her as soon as he sees her and spends the rest of the film trying to get a relationship going.

The film doesn't bother to hide this.  Multiple times, Nacho gushes about his desire for her, usually dressed up in the kid-friendly language of holding hands or kissing.  But it's all about sex.  It goes so far as a not-at-all-subtle food-as-sex-metaphor sequence in which Nacho sexily drizzles creamy ranch dressing all over her salad, leading Encarnacion to wince as if she's coming.

And yet, they must each rebuff their own desires for the sake of their religious duties.  So they remain chaste, but bubbling with unfulfilled torment.  This unrequited romance ends up being central to the final match, in which Nacho feels a burst of energy and is able to beat the reigning champion not by praying to God, not because he has the support of the orphans, not by practicing and working out - but by seeing that Encarnacion has come to the match and realizing that it means she accepts him.

(Considering that Nacho has a series of religious crises throughout the film while trying to figure out if he can reconcile his wrestling with God's acceptance, it's telling that he receives his strength from Encarnacion rather than the Almighty.)

Hell, even the final shot of the movie is dripping with sex.  It ends with him looking at Encarnacion, then turning away with a forced and borderline creepy grin, ostensibly pleased with his life and his actions, but barely containing the red hot desire to strip her habit and bonk her brains out.

It's such a strange direction to go with a movie that could - should? - have just been a pretty basic formula.  Goofball monk + wacky wrestling costume + pratfalls = money.  At what point did they decide to make a movie about sex?  And at what point did Paramount/Nickelodeon realize they'd been duped?

There's moments in the film that smack of studio tampering, probably some last-ditch efforts to make something more marketable to kids. On two different occasions, Nacho climbs up something and dives off, and there's a fart sound that was obviously added in post-production.  You can almost hear the studio exec watching the movie: "Argh!  Kids won't get it!  Goddammit, Hess!  Put some farts in there!"

What's really strange is that, despite the wackiness of the film, not much of it is arbitrary.  Most of its scenes actually are structured with the intent of moving the story forward, even if the pacing is weird.  But every now and again, the movie comes to a full stop for a "gag."  Either a completely random act of violence or a gross-out joke or a musical sequence for Jack Black.

For example: early in the movie, Nacho is told to give last rites to a dying man.  This comes on the heels of Nacho wondering what his purpose is, so naturally it's a good chance for him to explore this part of his inner conflict.  He goes to the man, has a gag where he screws up the rites, and then the story continues.  But somewhere in the middle of that sequence - apropos of nothing - Nacho looks at the camera, screams, and flips over on his motor-cart.

Why?  You got me.  I have no way of knowing if the Hesses put that in there or if the studio demanded it, but I'm leaning toward the latter.  Nacho Libre is an absurd, but generally compact, story about some weighty topics with moments of kiddie bullshit sprinkled throughout.

I can't say the end result is a great movie, but it's so bizarre it's worth watching.  Really, can you think of another big-budget affirmation of religious dedication in the face of overwhelming sexual frustration that was marketed to kids in the last forty years?

All the Other Nonsense That Got Pushed Off the Main Page (Post Archive)

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