Following in his footsteps: Solar Jr. and and his father Solar. (PBS photo / September 26, 2012)

Tales of Masked Men

Friday, Sept. 28, 10 p.m., PBS


Here in the United States, we have a pretty strong appetite for spectacle. And we've got our share of ritualized violence. We've been known, on occasion, to hold simplified dualistic moral worldviews. And who doesn't love men in tights? But we've got nothing on Mexico. Our neighbors to the south have turned lucha libre — the tradition of Mexican wrestling, which often involves masked competitors in dramatic bouts of good versus evil — into a national pastime. A bright flamboyant symbol of Mexican culture.

The documentary Tales of Masked Men opens the new season of PBS's Voces on Friday Sept. 28. as a part of Hispanic Heritage Month. The film presents a history of lucha libre and a glimpse into the worlds of both fans and athletes.

Students of pop culture in the U.S. aren't exactly unfamiliar with this colorful sport — or call it athletic entertainment if you want to quibble over the definition. Jack Black starred in Nacho Libre, a 2006 movie about a priest who had a secret career as a luchador, or masked wrestler, made by the makers of cult smash Napoleon Dynamite. Farther down on the totem pole, there's the Nashville band Los Straightjackets who perform instrumental rock while dressed as lucha libre-style masked wrestlers. Still further down the pop culture rabbit hole, perhaps, there's Strong Bad, the masked-wrestler-ish character on Homestar Runner, a cult online animated Flash cartoon.

Tales of Masked Men tells the history of the evolution of lucha libre in Mexico. How wrestling became popular as mass entertainment in Mexico City in the 1930s, during a time of major demographic change, with many poor and lower-class citizens arriving in the city from around the country. Though there was a tradition of Greco-Roman wrestling, lucha libre (which means "free struggle") put a dramatic twist on the sport, making it more acrobatic, more aerial, more flamboyant. Lucha libre "retained its physicality," says Heather Levi, a cultural anthropologist who's done ethnographic fieldwork on the culture of the luchadors.

The connections between the masks and Mexican culture are teased out by anthropologists, folklorists and historians. In places the documentary gets a little academic. Like smackdown-style wrestling in the U.S., lucha libre is considered crude mass entertainment by some, but it's also enjoyed by millions. And the performers train at length to master their tight-rope moves, bumps, and suplexes.

The masks may be central to maintaining the crucial mystery of the athletes' identities — some bouts end with the loser having his (they're usually men) mask forcibly removed by the winner — and the masks certainly add an artistic flash to the matches, but more than anything, the masks allow for the dramatic roles of the wrestlers. The luchadors portray angels, demons, spirits and saints. The battle between good and evil becomes personified in a spectacular bit of family entertainment. And the masks on display in the film — with bright sunburst patterns, super-hero features or brilliant sequins — are their own works of art.

For Americans unfamiliar with lucha libre, it may be hard to believe just how central lucha libre is to Mexican culture. As one fan puts it: "For the Italians there's opera, for Mexicans it's lucha libre." And according to the film, some of Mexico's most famous celebrities have been luchadors.

Tales of Masked Men tells the stories of a few luchador legends, focusing at length on El Santo, the most famous wrestler in lucha libre history. El Santo (The Saint) started out as a rudo, or bad guy, and turned into a tecnico, a morally upright hero, and eventually a star of films and comic books. Essentially El Santo became a national icon.

The roles of little people — and the legacy of exploitation — in lucha libre and the tradition of passing down masks and character identities from fathers who wrestle to their sons are also considered in the film.

Lucha libre might look like a violent side show, with sweaty men pounding on each other and grimacing at the crowds, but when viewed as a mass entertainment — like movies or comic books — the matches say plenty about the people making and watching them. The fights tell stories of justice and morality, and if you're not interested in that, well there's still the dramatic ass-kickings and outrageous masks.