Soccer studs are 'the perfect couple'
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If you wonder why so few current professional athletes come out of the closet, you'd do well to watch "Mario," released on DVD by Wolfe Video after a successful screening at Frameline. This film reveals the psychological and romantic toll taken on players who deny their sexuality both to themselves and the people around them, not to mention the license it gives for team homophobia and management cowardice. "Mario" doesn't offer any solutions to these problems, but does expose the harsh reality of toxic masculinity and the sports world's resistance to letting players be their authentic selves, which winds up sacrificing talent in the name of profit.
Mario Luthi (Max Hubacher) is a young player in the Bern Soccer Club in Switzerland, training hard to advance to a professional league in Germany. Suddenly he is confronted with a new striker from Hanover, Germany, the gorgeous, dark-haired Leon Saldo (Aaron Altaras), who is competing for the same promotion. Seeing an advantage in putting them together, the club assigns them to share an apartment as roommates, giving Leon a place to live and Mario freedom from traveling back to his rural home. This gives him some needed distance from his father coach, who lives vicariously through him. Initially wary, they become friends. Mario's father announces cluelessly, "They're the perfect couple on the field." So preoccupied with soccer he is oblivious to his orientation, Mario even makes a platonic girlfriend out of his BFF Jenny (Jessy Moravec). Mario and Leon become lovers after a night of beer and videogames, but know they must keep their affair secret. Mario does come out to his father, who is rejecting, and his mother, who is supportive.
Inevitably, word leaks out about their romance, with a porno picture attached to Mario's locker and bullying from teammates (hot guys in bona fide football scenes), leading to a meeting with the club management, who claim not to care about the gay issue but are worried about cohesion, the sponsors, fan reaction, and the team's public image. Mario, with the support of his agent, repudiates the anonymous allegation, and starts being seen in public with women, adopting Jenny as his beard. Leon also denies the affair, but, long comfortable being gay, is increasingly uneasy with remaining closeted. He resents the taunts of his teammates, which ultimately lead to a confrontation. He sees his relationship with Mario as love ("I don't care what they say"), not just sex. Mario, wanting to achieve his lifelong dream, is willing to compromise, leading to a rupture with Leon. Having convinced the club he is straight, they advance him to a professional team in Germany, with Jenny coming along as both support and cover for him. What will happen to Mario and his relationship with Leon?
Co-screenwriter and director Marcel Gisler made the well-regarded documentary "Electroboy," about gay model, party organizer, and electronic music composer Florian Burkhardt. He invests the picture with conviction and authenticity. At two hours, "Mario" is a bit long, but it never drags because of the sizzling chemistry between Hubacher and Altaras. You really care whether their relationship can be salvaged. In some ways this is a conventional movie about forbidden romance, somewhat predictable yet heart-wrenching. But it effectively illustrates the pressures applied to young athletes to conform and put their careers ahead of any private satisfaction.
Both Hubacher and Altaras exude charisma. Hubacher won the Swiss equivalent of an Oscar, and Altaras skillfully captures the sheer exhaustion and exasperation of living a lie. Both actors are thoroughly believable in their erotic sensuality, honesty, and loving tenderness in how they interact with each other. The situation between the characters is so painful because it is so realistic. While the struggles of the gay athlete remain primary, they don't overwhelm the joyful moments of two young men discovering love.