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Mexican culture in a sweaty headlock

Movies | ON THE SET

January 22, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Tlacolula, Mexico — JACK BLACK'S comic antics often leave audiences in stitches. Now Black himself is being sewn back together, a jagged line of dark thread embroidered around his eye.

His impromptu surgery was necessitated by a stunt sequence in his latest cinematic venture, "Nacho Libre." That's what comes from being a successful Hollywood leading man with a bent for throwing yourself headfirst into the action, literally.

"I'm delicate, like a piece of china," says Black, whose barrel-chested bulk is more suggestive of the Great Wall than a Ming vase. "I dived ... and fell on some people and I hit a chair. Busted my eye. It was fun: I got a nice little three-day vacation. Scarred for life -- the scar's not going to go away. But that's part of the job."

Funny guy, this Black, and, in his own unique way, surprisingly agile and athletic -- which you already knew if you saw him crank up those righteous guitar solos in "High Fidelity" and "School of Rock." These may be just the qualities he'll need to carry off the stout title role in "Nacho Libre," a bruising comedy that director Jared Hess ("Napoleon Dynamite") and a Mexican American crew spent filming here last fall. The Paramount Pictures release, which is being produced by Nickelodeon Movies along with Black's production company, Black and White Productions, is slated to reach theaters this summer.

Fresh off his appearance as a smarmy action-film director in Peter Jackson's "King Kong" remake, Black stars in "Nacho Libre" as another kind of high-spirited scrapper risking life and limb to pursue his obsessively offbeat dreams. He's Ignacio (a.k.a. "Nacho"), a Norwegian Mexican kitchen worker and priest-in-training at a Mexican orphanage, with a heart of pure gold and a midsection of pure cellulite.

Various complications naturally ensue, and when the orphanage is threatened with closure, Nacho dons a mask and moonlights as a \o7luchador\f7, a practitioner of the anything-goes style of Mexican professional wrestling known as \o7lucha libre\f7 ("free fighting"). Black describes his character as "a little bit vain, but he's also a little sweet and innocent."

\o7Lucha libre\f7 is a longtime fixture of Mexican pop culture that reached its commercial and creative zenith between the 1940s and early 1980s. That's when star wrestling personalities such as Santo and Blue Demon ruled the ring and a slew of Cine Luchador flicks transformed a marginal "sport" into a full-blown subculture. ("Nacho Libre" takes place in \o7lucha\f7's 1970s heyday.) Several of these flicks were camp masterpieces, and their melodramatic plots frequently involved a more or less heartfelt element of personal struggle as the heroic \o7luchador\f7 battled evil adversaries and fickle fate.

And although "Nacho Libre's" lead role is being played by a non-Latino who estimates his Spanish vocabulary at 40 words, the filmmakers say their movie takes a respectfully knowledgeable, if humorous, view of Mexican popular culture. "We didn't want to be a gringo-Hollywood production," says co-producer Julia Pistor.

Even granted \o7lucha libre\f7's innate absurdity, the goofy premise of "Nacho Libre" may seem like something cooked up after one too many mescals. Not so. It's loosely inspired by a real-life Mexican priest who, for more than 20 years, lived a double life as a \o7luchador\f7 nicknamed Fray Tormenta (Friar Storm), taking part in some 4,000 bouts. Some of the money he earned went to fund an orphanage that he ran.

Though the "Nacho Libre" team met with Fray Tormenta, who still lives near Mexico City, the idea wasn't to make "a straight-ahead biopic," says Mike White, the movie's co-screenwriter and Black's production partner. "It's funny," White says. "We're doing a movie about something that's very inauthentic, but it's so authentic in Mexican culture."

Though \o7lucha libre\f7's conventions -- elaborate body-slamming maneuvers, flashy capes and masks, midget wrestlers -- are less well known on this side of the border, \o7lucha libre \f7has gradually developed a fervid U.S. following. Black is now among the devotees. "I knew the Mexican wrestlers," he says, pausing between scenes under the withering Oaxacan sun, while an assistant teases his long, shaggy hair into fighting trim. "I thought they looked cool, but I'd never been to a match. There's a lot of impressive moves. But also the theatricality is so fun to watch."

The only thing in the movie more theatrical than the \o7lucha libre \f7throwdowns may be the dramatic Mexican backdrops. Much of "Nacho Libre" is being shot in this majestically beautiful corner of southern Mexico, about a six-hour drive from Mexico City. Prized for its rich indigenous culture, the state of Oaxaca also is one of Mexico's great culinary meccas. "It's been a struggle to keep a fighting weight," says Black, polishing off an \o7elote\f7 -- corn on the cob slathered in mayonnaise. "Much of the movie I'm shirtless. Fat is funny."

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