A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG-13, 91 mins.
Ignacio/Nacho: Jack Black / Esquelto: Hector Jimenez / Guillermo: Richard Montoya
Sister Encarnacion: Ana de la Reguera / Sage: Lauro Chartrand / Young Nacho: Troy Gentile
/ Juan Pablo: Moises Arias / Ramses: Cesar Gonzalez
Brother Ignacio is a Mexican friar that has a particular disdain for his day job. This gig has him getting up a five in the morning at his monastery in Oaxaca to make breakfast for the poor orphans that reside there. He loves the kids, but he sure doesn't love the lack of respect that his superiors seem to display towards him. Well, who could blame them? His morning meals look like excrement laced with day old taco chips. His meals are so disgusting that one of friars claims that he has had diarrhea since the Easter season for having eaten them.
To get him through the days Ignacio finds some happiness in lusting after a beautiful new Sister, Encarnacion, who has just arrived to help spread the word of God. Hmmm…call me crazy…but lusting after insanely hot nuns under a house of the Lord is probably the last thing that the almighty wants Ignacio to do, but I digress.
Okay, so Ignacio does not truly have his heart in cooking. Maybe this can be partially attributed to his heritage. I guess being half-Scandinavian and half Mexican has given him some sort of identity crisis. Or, maybe his early midlife emotional funk has something to do with his real passion. Ever since he was a young lad he worshipped the performers of the squared circle – the luchador wrestlers that are a part of the professional wrestling circuit known in Mexico as lucha libre. To him, the luchadors are like gods and all he has ever wanted to do is become one. During those boring Sunday mornings in Church instead of reading Bible passages, Ignacio doodles costume concepts for the wrestler he always anted to be.
However, being a wrestler and a friar poses some very interesting roadblocks. It’s hard to be a man of faith as well as one involved in a leisure activity like wrestling. His superiors admonish the sport, as does the gorgeous Encarnacion. She thinks wrestlers yearn for prestige and foolish pride. They are the work of the devil. This is a hard pill for Ignacio to swallow. All he wants to do is become famous and be the type of wrestling hero that he worshiped as a tyke. Unfortunately, it’s hard to do that when you have a conflict of interest with your current place of employment, not to mention when the girl you’re trying to score with thinks that following that certain path will lead straight to fire and brimstone.
NACHO LIBRE is one absurd and ridiculous movie. I can honestly admit that I have not seen anything quite like it. However, its willingness to dive headfirst into ludicrousness and unpretentious silliness are virtues, not detriments. It’s amazing how endearing of a comedy it is. At first, the level of idiocy is kind of jarring, but once the tone is established it’s really, really difficult not to warm over to it’s almost surrealistic shenanigans and laugh long and laugh hard. In these ways, NACHO LIBRE is – oxymorons aside – kind of masterfully dumb. There is such an unrelenting and perseverant level of overwhelming wackiness that permeates the movie that it achieves a level of irreverent and bizarre intrigue. Oh, and the film is wall-to-wall laughs. I have not chuckled so long and consistently since either ANCHORMAN or THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN.
While watching the escapades of the friar that wants to be a wrestler, it donned on me that the key to this film’s success in the laugh department is no so much in terms of what is said or the obvious physical sight gags it employs. The film – truth be told – is filled with verbal zingers and a daft hand for farcical pratfalls. No, the real key to the film is primarily one of tone. It’s not what they do or say that is funny, but how they show it. Even some throwaway lines emerge as sidesplitting. There is one moment – when Ignacio asks Encarnacion if she would like to come one night into his bedroom…for toast – where the results are so unbridled in their irrationality that it’s hard not to roar with laughter. We see the immediate payoff – the two of them sitting side-by-side eating toast and enjoying each other’s company. These small scenes are just the tip of the iceberg for this film’s peculiarity.
The film’s inherent funny quirkiness and strangeness can definitely be attributed to the man behind the camera. NACHO LIBRE was directed and co-written by Jared Hess, who many of you may remember was the man behind the hit of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and overnight cult sensation NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. That film was one that I am willing to concede I liked and appreciated more in repeated viewings, perhaps more than my two and a half star rating review of it let on. That film – like LIBRE – had a warped spirit and an infectious level of weirdness. It too featured a lead character that was a decisive outcast and misfit. The title character in that film was such an unmitigated geek that all other nerds bowed down before him. Again, that film worked on its comedic tonal levels, not so much by the dialogue or story, which never really achieved a higher level than a series of incongruous vignettes strung together.
However, I think that LIBRE puts a sleeper lock (no pun intended) on DYNAMITE in the sense of our emotional buy-in to the main character. Dynamite was such an unprecedented loser. We did not laugh with him, we laughed at him with cheerful mockery. The difference with Ignacio is that he’s a more lovable and empathetic creation. Dynamite was an unavoidably hopeless person (even when he achieved some marginal level of comeuppance during the film’s conclusion, it was still hard to see him as anything but a persona that rightfully deserved our ridicule). You never really liked Dynamite, per se. In LIBRE Ignacio is a desperate sap looking for some fame and prestige, but you find yourself rooted for him with more authority. There is a bumbling humanism to Ignacio. Dynamite felt almost too nerdy to be even real. With Ignacio he still is inhumanly gawky, but you truly want him to succeed. His aspirations are also more palpable and noble. Yes, he wants to be a great and successful wrestler, but at least he wants to share the wealth with those poor children. Ignacio may look more like a portly porn star with his puffy brunette fro and mustache, but on a level of modest hero worship he is Napoleon's superior.
Watching LIBRE after DYNAMITE reveals Hess' own unique stylistic trappings. Much like Wes Anderson, Hess finds inspiration in oddball, goofy, and graceless personas. His willingness to devote time in movies to focusing on them like they were cherished matinee idols is kind of edifying. A lot of comedies (especially modern ones) feel more at home with using disgusting humor laced with every discernable type of bathroom/bodily fluid joke thrown in for good measure. Shocking visuals and sickening content have been sort of sworn in these days as the workhorse elements of “worthy” comedies. What LIBRE and DYNAMITE do is both clever and more challenging. LIBRE does have its share of jokes that involve passing wind – for example – but it (alongside DYNAMITE) is not a mean-spirited and oppressive comedy. Hess' films are good-natured and fun looks at goofy outsiders. And at least with LIBRE its main character thinks he’s skilled beyond his means and then – gosh darn it – becomes skilled beyond his means. In that manner, he’s a real crowd pleaser.
The film has almost too many moments of daftness to keep track off. There is one scene where Ignacio tries to convince a street bum named Esqueleto (played with very, very understated comic charm Hector Jimenez), to join him as a tag team partner. He looks like the least likely person to be a worthy wrestler (he's a waling skeleton). An early training montage is a masterpiece of asinine perplexity, as is one moment when both Esqueleto and Ignacio must fight two street thugs (I never knew that corn on the cob could be such a surprisingly effective weapon). Then there is a scene where Ignacio tries to infiltrate the party of the evil Mexican champion and disguises himself as a singer. The fact that he is played by Jack Black almost precludes that his song will inspire endless hilarity.
Black – along with Hess – needs to be given considerable credit here. He plays up the part for broad caricature, but a film this weird needs – nay – demands that. His performance kind of has a guileless and fearless comedic ferocity. When you watch Black and realize just how headstrong and willing he is to go to any means necessary to make himself look as outlandish as possible, then you just kind of have to respect that level of sly determination. Black is a great physical comedian (his face and eyebrows alone are the catalysts to many moments of merriment), but with his pudgy facade and merry, happy-go-lucky exuberance, his Ignacio has a gusto and vibe that is hard not to appreciate. Black’s work here is uninhibited and manic. He’ll go to any lengths to make us laugh and very few times does he fail in NACHO LIBRE. It’s his funniest work to date.
I guess if I put my serious critical hat on then I would say that the one element that does not work altogether well in the film is the handling of the love story. Encarnacion’s (played by the luminous Ana de la Requera, arguably the hottest nun in movie history) relationship with Ignacio plays a bit too timidly for a film as strange this one. The two of them have sworn a vow of absolute celibacy, yet they sort of exhibit feelings that demonstrate at hesitation with these vows. She is more of a plot device than anything else, and the manner in which their relationship builds and closes the film is unsatisfying. There is a bit of a lack of spark between the two and her growing affection for him never really feels legit. She seems more of a legitimate member of God’s rulebook, so her acceptance of Ignacio when she finds out what he really does seems a bit false.
Yet, that is just nitpicking. NACHO LIBRE is the kind of addictively hilarious comedy that does everything right. Its laughs are aplenty and are consistently dispersed throughout the film. Consistency is the key with great comedies, and on that simple level, LIBRE fruitfully delivers. My most lasting impression of the film is how well Hess is able to maintain the film’s cheeky level of unremitting childishness and inanity with the proceedings. His unparalleled comic appreciation for everything that is baffling and atypical is what makes the film sing. It's a textbook exercise in mannered idiosyncrasy, and Hess knows how to push the abnormal envelope for the right comic effect. I guess that – at the end of the day – my job as a critic is to report on what I watched. On its own inherent levels, NACHO LIBRE may be dumber than a bag of hammers, but it made me laugh…an awful lot. It’s a rare breed of screen comedy. It’s fairly clean and good harmless fun in a Three Stoogian kind of way. LIBRE is unreservedly a delicious giggle riot, and with the demented talents of Hess and Black on board, it’s no wonder it succeeds.