About the same time Netflix added the first two seasons of the hit Robert Rodriguez show, Lucha Underground, it seems they have also added a couple of Lucha Libre documentaries to their ever-expanding library of great stuff. Tales of Masked Men (2012) is the first one I decided to watch, mostly because it was super late and the whole thing was just about an hour-long. I’m not certain if it premiered there, but I know this film was aired on PBS at some point, which shows the sort of program that it is. The documentary is both a historical analysis of the origins of the sport, starting in the 1930’s with such men as El Enmascarado (purported to be the first guy that wore a mask in Mexico City), Masked Basque, and Masked Marvel, but it also stands as a sociological film, looking at the society in and around Mexico City.
Described by cultural anthropologist Heather Levi as “a sport in the key of melodrama,” Lucha Libre springs from the same root as American professional wrestling (i.e. Olympic and Greco-Roman style competitive wrestling), but has taken on the unique characteristics of Mexico and the country’s long-standing fascination with masks. Masks conceal faces but not feelings, allowing luchadors to transform themselves into either the character of a rudo, the rule-breaking villain, or a técnico, the fair and square, technically proficient hero. Practiced in large and small arenas throughout Mexico and the U.S. as well as other countries, this “working class” sport is truly interactive, with multigenerational fans passionately involved in the high drama of the ring.
–The website for the film
As one lady in one of the “on the street” interviews states, “For Italians there’s opera, For Mexicans there’s lucha Libre”, which really goes to show how the sport is regarded by many people in modern-day Mexico. Sadly, just like in America with its own strand of professional wrestling, Lucha Libre is often looked down upon by those that seem to think that the whole thing is a bait and switch act played to fools, but they are the real fools because fans know exactly what is going on. Nobody, apart from small children and perhaps the mentally challenged, think it’s real guys – get off your arrogant high horse.
I liked some of the discussions of this ever-popular “you know it’s fake right?” question that folks seem to always have – and anyone that says this has to be ignorant of just how physical the whole thing is. yeah, outcomes are pre-determined, and there are pulled punches, but I’d challenge any of the naysayers to step in a ring and jump from ropes, do flips, and entertain a crowd. It’s a melodramatic live-action comic book, full of real-life superheroes.
After a bit of this cultural discussion, the film shifts into a series of profiles of prominent luchadors (wrestlers). The legendary El Santo (The Saint) is the first Luchador profiled. debuting in around 1934, Santo was a largely poor journeyman wrestler that toiled around dingy independent arenas until he decided to don a silver mask and become a “Rudo” (bad guy). Despite his penchant for cheating and getting disqualified, Santo easily became the most popular wrestler in all of Mexico (turning him into a “Technico”, or good-guy), a fact that landed him numerous film roles. Eventually he transcended the sport and became a living legend and symbol of Mexico until his death in 1984.
Many anecdotes were shared for Santo (born Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta (September 23, 1917 – February 5, 1984)) including the fact that he seemed to never lose sight of the fans, and did everything in his power to make them happy. It was said that he would even forgo pay, if the show he was attending did not have enough money to pay the rest of the talent, he would have rather they split his guaranteed sum than let his brothers go home penniless. I know it’s bad to speak ill of the dead, but it legitimately seems like Santo was a truly good person.
One of these days, I need to try to get some of his films, such as one where he and another Luchador named Blue Demon fight werewolves and vampires because wrestling is serious business.
Next up was Mascarita Sagrada (Little Sacred Mask), perhaps the most famous Mini-Estrella in all of Mexican wrestling. While many see “midget wrestling” as exploitative here in the US, it’s as popular as ever in Mexico with many of the mini counterparts to normal sized wrestlers becoming more popular than their larger namesakes. One of the more interesting things said during the interview is that Sagrada originally hated Lucha Libre, he saw it as a sport for uneducated people much in the same way that people up north sometimes look down at pro wrestling as a sport for rednecks. He wanted to get into Kung Fu, and used Lucha Libre as a way to train until he fell in love with it.
He was trained by two prominent little people wrestlers named Gulliver and El Gran Nikolai, two men that pretty much started the division in Mexico in the 1960’s. At one point he relays an anecdote of a class he was in as a small boy, one where a teacher asked him to get some folders from a high shelf. Friends and enemies alike mocked him for not being able to reach said shelf, so he set a chair up in front and grabbed the folders. He knew that in that moment, much as in life, if he had said “I can’t” his entire life would have been stunted from that point forward. That’s how he lives his life – never letting his size get in his way.
There is a version of Mascarita Sagrada currently on US Television on Lucha Underground, however it is very likely that it’s not the same guy as the original one here, as he is older.
Finally the film shifted to another dynamic – a father and son tag team. Solar is one of the last working wrestlers from the “silver era” of Lucha Libre, and while many of his contemporaries have long since retired, he is still there running the ropes at 60+ years old. I recall seeing Solar in the short lived Lucha Libre USA show that ran for three seasons on MTV2 and Hulu, where he even won the Lucha Libre USA Heavyweight Championship at one point. I had no clue how old he was on there, as he can still move like a man much younger!
His son is training to follow in his father’s footsteps as El Hijo de Solar or Solar Jr. At the point of this film, he was still very much a greenhorn – not ready to be a star, but he was learning from one of the best. who knows if he’ll be as good as his father, hell he may even surpass him in every way – it’s just cool to see them together. The documentary went a bit into the succession of masks and how luchadors will usually pass their persona down to somebody else – for instance, there is now a THIRD El Santo, Dr. Wagner, and second Blue Demon out there – keeping the whole thing alive for years to come. We don’t really have that much in American Pro Wrestling, I can honestly only think of a few times where a moniker might be passed down – like in the case of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, or “Gorgeous George”.
All in all, this was a very good, albeit short documentary. It’s tailored in such a way that total newbies can watch for the human drama unfolding, others will love seeing cameos from a ton of their favorite wrestlers in the background of shots.
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