'Mario': Film Review

MARIO Still 1 -Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Triluna
Familiar but moving.

Marcel Gisler's drama about a closeted soccer player stars Swiss Film Award best actor winner Max Hubacher opposite German actor Aaron Altaras.

A young Swiss soccer player has been training very hard but his hopes of professional advancement are complicated by the fact that he falls in love with a fellow player in the — excuse the pun — straightforward drama Mario. Though a tad too protracted, this is again an accessible work that tackles German-speaking Switzerland’s complex attitude toward homosexuality in the vein of some of the earlier work from director Marcel Gisler, such as the crowdpleaser Rosie and the fascinating documentary Electroboy. It caused a minor scandal when it was dropped from the Ecrans Junior program in Cannes, which is aimed at school kids, over objections about its contents, even though it was rated as suitable for “all audiences” in France, where it will be released Aug. 1.

Indeed, there is nothing objectionable about this feature, which is so well acted it managed to take home statues in the best actor and best supporting actress categories at the most recent Swiss Film Awards. Besides Switzerland, Germany and France, this well-made if familiar drama has already sold to several other territories as well, including Arti Film in the Netherlands, Peccadillo in the U.K. and Wolfe Releasing stateside. 

Leon (Aaron Altaras) is a striking striker from Hanover, Germany, who is added to the under-21 team of Swiss-German soccer hopeful Mario (Max Hubacher), a young pup who, like his peers, hopes to soon be scouted by a major European soccer team. Leon is dark-haired, olive-skinned and a little mysterious, qualities that the dirty blond and blue-eyed Mario can’t help but notice, especially after they are assigned to share a players’ apartment provided by the club so Leon has a place to live and Mario doesn’t need to travel back to the parental home in rural Switzerland all the time.

Gisler wrote the screenplay with Thomas Hess (Monkey King) and Frederic Moriette, Christian Petzold’s regular script supervisor who here makes his debut as a screenwriter. Their setup is classical — in the sense that the chronologically told story has no surprising twists or unexpected subplots — and also a tad too leisurely. Besides the arrival of Leon, they also take their time to introduce Jenny (Jessy Moravec), Mario’s girlfriend of many years, though only in a purely platonic sense, much to — and no surprise here either — Jenny’s dismay. 

It takes about 35 minutes before the more temperamental German finally kisses his more subdued Swiss roommate on the lips during a tickle session in front of a video game, and while the scene is both dramatically credible and incredibly cute, it is something of a mystery as to why it takes the screenwriters so long to get there. The decision to make this the turning point between act one and two feels like something from a 1980s film and won’t surprise anyone in this day and age, especially if they have read a one-sentence description of the film or seen the trailer.

Things thankfully kick into a higher gear when, after Mario’s initial shock, he decides to kiss Leon the next day when the latter wants to apologize for that moment of awkward intimacy. Indeed, it is clear from Mario’s puppy-dog eyes that, emotionally, he wants to be with his cute, funny and caring teammate, though of course there’s a whole obstacle course laid out for the duo because they can’t openly be a couple as it would potentially ruin the reputation of the club as well as their careers, which haven’t even really started yet. Their domestic bliss is thus something that happens strictly indoors, with their small and austere apartment basically becoming a not-all-that-fabulous, two-person closet. 

It’s not long before rumors start circulating, however, and Gisler expertly traces how Mario becomes increasingly torn between his affection and desire for Leon and the dream of a potentially great soccer career and the need to lie to his teammates, parents and best friend to keep that dream alive. Mario’s much older agent, Herr Gehrling (Andreas Matti), gives him a reality check when he says that “drugs, sex with minors or gay stuff” are all things players can’t be associated with. Thankfully, Gehrling himself isn’t homophobic, but he’s nonetheless forced to verbalize what some of the unwritten rules of contemporary professional soccer still are. Being gay “is not good for your market value or the club’s return on investment,” Mario has to hear. And after a terse meeting with his club's bosses, both Mario and Leon show up to a corporate party with female companions. The sequence that follows feels intentionally uncomfortable and again like something from a 1980s movie, though here Gisler cleverly uses the temporal dissonance to underline how conservative the soccer world is compared to the rest of the world. 

(Spoilers in the following paragraph.) Like in Ben A. Williams’ feature The Pass, in which Russell Tovey played a closeted soccer player over the span of 10 years, Gisler uses time as a key element to help unmask the true psychological toll and emotional damage that remaining closeted can inflict not only on the person who chooses to keep their sexuality a secret for the outside world but also for everyone around them. Indeed, it is in the film’s final act, after Mario has moved to Hamburg for his career with Jenny but without Leon, that the story really takes flight and the price for remaining closeted starts to spread like gangrene in Mario's life.  

Keeping audiences invested throughout is Altaras and Hubacher’s chemistry and the different approaches of their characters when faced with the same problems. While the title makes it clear whose story is being told, Mario’s own attitude, behavior and decisions wouldn’t hurt that much or cut that deep if Leon didn’t suggest a different way of handling the same situation. A late scene in which Mario meets Leon at home is affecting because of everything that remains unsaid. Similarly, Gisler uses wordless gestures to convey ideas, such as when Mario’s severe father (Jurg Pluss) finally admits he’s proud of his son and reaches out his hand but the two men never touch. Despite its structural problems and mostly foreseeable storyline, the small, very human moments such as these ensure that Mario feels authentic and is, finally, moving. 

Production companies: Triluna Film, Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, SRG SSR, Teleclub AG
Cast: Max Hubacher, Aaron Altaras, Jessy Moravec, Jurg Pluss, Doro Muggler, Andreas Matti, Joris Gratwohl, Scherwin Amini, Fabrizio Borsani
Director: Marcel Gisler
Screenwriters: Marcel Gisler, Thomas Hess, Frederic Moriette
Producer: Rudolf Santschi
Director of photography: Sophie Maintigneux
Production designer: Kathrin Brunner
Costume designer: Catherine Schneider
Editor: Thomas Bachmann
Music: Michael Duss, Christian Schlumpf, Martin Skalsky
Casting: Corinna Glaus
Venue: Cannes Film Festival
Sales: Films Boutique

In Swiss-German, German
119 minutes