Arena Mexico is Mexico City’s answer to Rome’s Coliseum, and is just as steeped in mythology. It holds over 13,000 spectators, but its influence extends well beyond the ropes. The documentary Lucha Mexico opens in this legendary space. A raving crowd fuels the spectacle of hyper masculine gladiators dressed in lycra hot-pants and printed leotards, that finds richness in its odd interplay between fantasy and reality.
The film explores the cultural phenomenon of lucha libre, the Mexican sport-spectacle of professional freestyle wrestling that blends highly technical maneuvers, fast sequences of holds and aerial moves and the drama of theatrical staging. The camera follows acclaimed warriors ‘1000% Guapo’ Shocker and Strong Man, as their stories become entangled with those of a variety of characters: masked champions, hardcore performers and drag fighters, among others. They take the ring in distinctive costumes, as caricature heroes and villains who engage in a violent and intuitive ballroom dance of sorts, in which glitter and blood might be equally present.
However, Lucha Mexico is not an attempt to dissect the art of lucha libre by explaining its confines. The limits of what is “real” and what is enacted are left untouched. Filmmakers Ian Markiewicz and Alexandria Hammond uphold this fantasy: There is a tacit agreement to enter the arena without questioning the legitimacy of the competition. “From their perspective, it’s a performance, but they don’t pre choreograph it, even if it has that appearance,” Markiewicz explains, to which Hammond adds: “We have deep respect for lucha libre, and for its audiences as well. We didn’t necessarily think that was the important part.”
The contradictory image of the muscular male body dressed in provocative outfits can be puzzling. Lucha Mexico showcases that chaotic pastiche of symbols: sequins, high boots, heavy gothic makeup and intentional cross-dressing are often adopted to embody a unique identity that matches a specific style of fighting.
The mask, an ancestral legacy of Aztec tradition, becomes the departing point of the characterization. “The mask has always been about giving the character that extra something," Markiewicz says. "Many of them also like the idea of going out and doing the shows like superheroes. The mask goes off and they are just regular guys.” The possibility of a dual persona, on and off the ring, adds to the mystification of the wrestler, a creature that seems to exist only on the ring. Lucha Mexico supports that narrative. Even for the unmasked wrestler, his character feels heavily dependent upon the fact that his face is available. As Hammond explains, “The masked wrestlers tend to have more of a private life than the ones without it.”
Most of the wrestlers start their careers wearing a mask; many of them bear design elements that symbolize religious beliefs or family traditions. Through the course of their professional life many wrestlers lose it in “mask vs. mask” encounters. It's a critical type of match in which the winner forces his opponent to reveal his personal appearance in a performance of public humiliation. In this case, disguising is interpreted as a literal way of saving face.
When Lucha Mexico follows the wrestlers outside the ring, we see them engaging in rather mundane activities. Between training and rehabilitating, they go home to their suburban families and to their day jobs. However, the film shows how, on the outskirts of Arena Mexico, lucha libre never ceases to exist. On the boulevards of Mexico City, on local street markets and squares, the image of the wrestler is replicated infinitely in posters, paraphernalia and improvised matches. Against the backdrop of other popular representations, political struggles and the ubiquitous shrines of Virgen de Guadalupe, they appear triumphantly as national heroes, objects ready to be worshipped.