This predictable, yet powerful, new gay drama from Marcel Gisler (Fogi is a Bastard, The Blue Hour) has been making a big splash in its European release since premiering at Cannes in May where it was unceremoniously, and presumably homophobically, dropped out of the children’s line-up at the last minute despite its “All Audiences” rating (Though as a parent myself, I did wonder if maybe the mutual masturbation scene was a bit much?).
Mario serves up a winning combination of exceptional production values, a great cast and script, and a compelling crossover theme—gay love set against the backdrop of professional soccer.
Spoiler Alert: This is the kind of film that’s impossible to review without giving away most of the plot. It’s also the kind of film where even without having been told all the plot spoilers you pretty much know exactly what’s going to happen all the way through anyway and then, truthfully, it’s still an absolute joy to watch the story unfold.
When beefy Leon (Aaron Altaras) arrives from Hannover, Germany to join the Bern Soccer Club in Switzerland, his teammates seem skeptical of the outsider. From the moment Leon walks into the locker room, the wide-eyed Mario (Max Hubacher) watches Leon’s every move—that look on his face seems more like lust than skepticism though.
As the two players compete to be promoted from this regional club to the higher level pro team the film unfolds their gradual love affair.
In the long tradition of European gay sports movies, the tale of Mario and Leon plays out against a backdrop of hot Euro guys with amazing quads hanging around in the locker room, running drills and training, and, oh yeah, taking showers—all of this in the first five minutes of the film mind you.
Before you can say: “How long will it take before they hook up?” the boys are assigned to share an apartment together. And before you can say: “I can’t wait another minute longer,” a late-night video-game session together provides the opportunity for Leon to gaze longingly at Mario before making a move and kissing him. Which, of course, Mario can’t handle. Now, a sequence of closet-y scenes alternate with scenes of their genuine love (and excellent chemistry) and the stage is set for heartbreak, but with a few more twists.
Looking uncannily like Max Riemelt in the 2013 gay hit, Free Fall, Max Hubacher gives a beautiful performance as the closeted rising soccer star Mario. His co-star Aaron Altaras is also terrific as his lover and teammate Leon. Hubacher took home Best Actor honors at the Swiss Film Prize awards for Mario. Not only is there a sexual chemistry between Hubacher and Altaras, but there’s also a wonderful, loving tenderness between them as well.
“You should see them play. They’re the perfect couple on the field,” Mario’s father innocently announces to his wife as the four have lunch together in the family’s incredible house amidst the Swiss Alps and the two boys exchange an amused meaningful glance.
Trouble arises in their brief Leonio paradise (okay, an even better and gayer ship name option for them is: Marion!) when it becomes clear their teammates are beginning to suspect, and someone pastes a gay pornographic picture in Mario’s locker (this too may have been a bit of a red flag for the Cannes Children’s Film Festival, just saying). The increasing homophobia and bullying of their teammates lead both Mario and Leon to the ultimate dilemma. Sadly but truly, they both choose to deny their love in order to keep their jobs—and while we know this makes for excellent cinematic dramatic tension we also know it will ultimately be a regrettable choice.
“We have to deny it no matter what,” Mario insists when Leon says he thinks they should come out.
“What were you guys thinking?” Leon’s agent berates them. “You can’t play on the same team and fuck too. That’s not professional.”
As they discuss it afterward back at their apartment Leon lovingly explains to Mario, “It isn’t just about fucking for me.”
Now we are at the familiar crossroads of so many gay films—can our hero Mario discover the true courage to be himself and to follow his heart? For he, too, is in love with Leon. Or will he reveal himself as a coward destined to live out his days in closeted misery?
This, I will not spoil for you. It could go either way.
“Mario you’re such a coward,” his best friend tells him after Mario uses her as a beard at the team party in an attempt to placate his coach by pretending to be straight.
And yet when his parents discover the truth, Mario stands up to his Dad’s homophobia and proclaims his love for Leon.
“I’m not the only gay soccer player in the world,” Mario announces, poignantly acknowledging the fact that in real life other gay professional players have indeed come out.
Like the brilliant, and genuinely kid-friendly, 2014 Dutch teen love story, Boys (about the love between two high school track stars) Mario deftly leverages the tension of the closet vs. true love, and we see how the true challenge of champions is not necessarily about being your best as an athlete but about being your best as a person.
Mario is available now on DVD and digital platforms from Wolfe Releasing.