Jack Black stars as the title character in this campy salute to Lucha Libre, or freestyle wrestling, a hallmark of popular Latin culture. In Nacho Libre, Black’s character begins as the lowly Ignacio, an orphan who grew up at a Catholic mission, and who has now become one of the mission brothers. Ever since his youth, Ignacio has dreamed of becoming a luchador, a flamboyant and famous wrestler.
Instead, Ignacio serves at the mission, caring for a new generation of needy orphans. When Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera) arrives to be the orphans’ new teacher, Ignacio has even more incentive to become successful and wealthy so that he can impress the attractive young nun. Thus, Ignacio’s motives are not entirely pure, and indeed, he must keep his burgeoning young wrestling career a secret, because Lucha Libre is condemned by the Catholic mission.
Lucha Libre, it seems, is seen as a form of idolatry, as the wrestlers seek only praise and wealth for themselves. Indeed, Ignacio’s interaction with the luchadores confirms this, as Ramses, who Ignacio acknowledges is “the best,” turns out to be a less than charitable figure.
But Ignacio will not be denied his destiny, and so he dons the persona of Nacho Libre once a week to wrestle with his tag team partner Esqueleto, well-played by Hຜtor Jiménez. The pair are rather inept wrestlers, but are such lovable losers that they become crowd favorites and are well-paid despite their incompetence. But this is not enough for Nacho, who has visions, perhaps delusions, of greatness. He wants to win.
Ignacio’s desire to reach his own destiny can been seen as a response to his perceived calling in life, otherwise known as his vocation, an idea which has a rich tradition in Christian theology. Vocation is literally “a calling,” and it is clear that Ignacio’s desire to become a luchador has been deeply implanted with him since his youth.
The dramatic tension enters into the equation because of the Church’s disapproval of Ignacio’s dream profession. This speaks to the difficulty faced when a person is convinced of a calling that is in an industry that is wholly condemned by ecclesiastical authorities. To be sure, there are some professions in which it is impossible to be both a Christian and remain in that line of work. But perhaps, thinks Ignacio, wrestling is not one of them. He can see some clear good that luchadores might do, not the least of which is in providing hopeless orphans a positive role model.
Is Ignacio’s perceived calling merely his own vain self-seeking ambition or a legitimate vocation from God? In some ways, Ignacio’s efforts can be seen as done by one who seeks to reform the Church’s understanding of this worldly profession. In this way Ignacio/Nacho acts as a more mundane and contemporary analogue to the more famous reforms advocated by Martin Luther in the sixteenth-century. When Luther left the Augustinian monastery and the celibate priesthood, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it was a “return from the cloister to the world,” and “the worst blow the world had suffered since the early days of Christianity.” To be sure, Ignacio’s attempts at reform are far less dramatic and consequential, but we can see a parallel in the effort to carve out some validity for the Christian pursuit of a secular calling.
But it is only when Ignacio comes to the realization that his calling is not simply about his own edification but the service of others that he enjoys a measure of wrestling success. Ignacio’s epiphany seems to truly come home as he acts out a Jonah-like trek into the wilderness, constructing a makeshift shelter on the edge of the village after his wrestling exploits are exposed and he is ejected from the monastery (see Jonah 4:5).
This illustrates another truth about the Christian concept of vocation, in that this calling is in every case a calling to serve others rather than simply yourself. In this sense Bonhoeffer also writes, “Only in so far as the Christian’s secular calling is exercised in the following of Jesus does it receive from the gospel new sanction and justification.” At first Ignacio’s selfish ambitions overshadow his desire to do good for the orphans and the mission, but his calling to serve is finally affirmed by the Church when he makes it clear that he is intent on sacrificing and serving the best interests of the orphans.
Those viewers who are fans of Jack Black will not be disappointed, as the movie in large part serves as a vehicle for his brand of dynamic and madly physical comedic stylings. The film is directed by Jared Hess, made famous by his direction of the cult hit Napoleon Dynamite (2004). Nacho Libre shares some of the same quirkiness of dialogue as the previous film, although it is not quite so charming and entertaining the second time around. Some of the scenes do not noticeably advance the plot, and seem more like excuses for Jack Black to be entertaining than to fit seamlessly into the flow of the film.
Even so, Nacho Libre is an entertaining movie, although fans of Jack Black and those at least familiar with Lucha Libre will have much more to enjoy. In the end, Nacho Libre rates as not a quarter, nor a half, nor a full, but rather a three-quarter nelson (3 out of 4 arms).
This post has been crossposted to Blogcritics.org.