After premiering to acclaim in Europe, Mario — a moving coming-of-age tale of love, homoeroticism and repression within the tight-knit milieu of professional men’s soccer — is available for streaming stateside this November.
The story begins in Bern, where we follow protagonist Mario Luthi’s progression as he plays for the youth team of one of Switzerland’s premier football clubs. It is a near-monastic life, with teammates, coaches, matches and training consuming almost every iota of Mario’s energy. He is one of the team’s best players and a practical shoo-in to play in the Swiss Super League until a new arrival, Leon, comes in from Hanover. The German immediately stands out among his Swiss home-grown peers. He’s easygoing and comfortable with himself.
Mario frets at the prospect of competition from Leon for a slot on the first team (they’re both strikers) and begins to worry even more when he finds out that the club has given them an apartment together. Sooner or later — almost inevitably it seems — the two are daydreaming in one another’s arms about flying off to Barbados and are trying their best not to hold hands while walking down the street. When rumors of the affair begin to circulate, not only are the players met with hostility, but a meeting with the club’s manager and chairman threatens both of their careers.
“Drugs, sex with minors, gay stuff — some things players just can’t do!” Mario’s manager says to him.
Tears fall, one of the pair quits, the other succeeds and its safe to say that unless you’re a homophobe there is no happy ending to find refuge in with this film.
Speaking over Skype, actor Max Hubacher, a Bern native, tells me that he drew on his own experiences as a youth while researching the role of Mario.
“I played soccer growing up,” he said. “I wanted to be a professional athlete and there are constantly homophobic comments being made, by both the players and the trainers. It’s so embedded into the culture. ‘Wow, that kick was totally gay, work on your left foot more’ or ‘Don’t kick like a faggot,’ might be another comment you’d hear.”
True to the film, homophobia pervades soccer’s upper echelons as well, Hubacher’s time spent with professional players while preparing for his part confirmed.
“If you want to have sex with another man, are you really going to feel comfortable telling your teammates or coaches?” he asks. “Will you feel comfortable telling your agent? You spend over half your life with these guys. They control both your personal life and your ability to be bought and sold by bigger clubs.”
Mario’s director, Marcel Gisler, tells me that, based on his research, some clubs will actively try to cover up a players’ homosexuality. “If a player is single for too long, a manager will often make sure that a [public relations] agency finds him a woman to be seen within public,” he said.
Homophobia is not unique to soccer, which might explain why the film is rumored to have been optioned by a major Hollywood studio, its setting changed to the NFL.
One strange aspect of homosexuality in professional sports is that it obviously exists and, although large portions of Western society have come to reject homophobia, being gay in the male sporting world continues to remain taboo — almost as if stadiums and locker rooms comprise a parallel universe.
I recently spoke with a Bavarian sports psychologist who works closely with Germany’s Bundesliga football league. She did not wish to be identified in order to protect patient confidentiality. Sexual repression is one of the primary topics men discuss when they visit her office, she explained.
“Sometimes they will come to me and tell me that they are masturbating a lot, thinking about a male teammate,” she said. “Other times, it’s about extra-marital affairs, players often feel that their lives were constructed too early on, often by the dreams of their parents, and they subsequently feel trapped in a dynamic they aren’t comfortable in.”
Gisler hopes his film will breach the near-ubiquitous silence surrounding queerness in sports. Mario played in wide theatrical release in Europe and he says that he has heard from many professional soccer players who have gone to see it. Unfortunately, many went in disguise or to theaters in places where they would likely not be recognized.
Dir. Marcel Gisler
Frenetic Films, 2018
Available on iTunes, VoD and DVD
Photo: Aaron Altaras (left) and Max Hubacher in Mario. Credit: Pro Fun Media.