During World Cup season, the issue of homosexuality in football continues to be something no one speaks about. So German filmmaker Marcel Gisler decided to make a movie that tackles the topic. Unable to find funding in Germany, he shot the film in Switzerland instead.
“I couldn’t understand why a film about gay footballers didn’t exist,” Gisler told Boyz on a recent visit to London. “The subject seems so present in the media, so I wanted the film to be as authentic as possible.” For example, he used a real club instead of a fictitious one.
“I know the gay angle just a little bit,” he laughs. “But for the football I talked to officials and a very good player who came out after he retired. I showed him my first draft and his reaction was important.”
It was also vital to get right actors to play Mario and his boyfriend Leon. “Both characters know that professional football is at odds with their love,” Gisler says. “Mario is more attached to becoming a professional player, because that’s his identity. These kinds of people are surrounded by fathers, managers and sponsors who make decisions based on what’s good for them, not the player. But Leon is more aware that he has to develop his own persona, and he has more courage to live his life. He wants to play professionally, but he needs to be himself.”
In the story, Leon is an outsider from Berlin, just like actor Aaron Altaras, who plays him. “Obviously it’s a really desirable role: football, gay, troubled, everything you’d want in a character,” Altaras says. “The tricky thing was playing happy, being the sexual object. When I auditioned, we did the first kiss scene, and all I could think was that Max [Hubacher, who had already been cast as Mario] had kissed half of Germany because everyone wanted this role!”
While the emotional and football scenes were difficult, Altaras thought the love scenes were easy. “Being naked was great,” he says. “There was one day when we were were naked all day. We were in a family neighbourhood, and Max and I walked out onto the street. A production assistant came up: ‘There are kids around here, put your dicks away!’ I’ve done love scenes with women, but this was much easier, maybe because we both knew we could do whatever we wanted. Although after two days of being naked together, I was ready to put some clothes on. And Max and I were really surprised to watch it on the big screen. It’s sexier than the stuff I do at home!”
Altaras also liked that his character makes an important point. “I love Leon because he has this idea that he and Mario could be the first World Cup winners who are officially a gay couple. I mean, how amazing would that be? Even if we played for different teams, we’re just a young professional couple. It works in every other career! We’d come home from work, ‘Yeah, I just won the championship, baby!’”
Mario: review by Jack Cline
Taking an unusually personal approach to the thorny issue of homophobia in football, this gripping Swiss drama isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers, keeping the issue centred on the characters to avoid becoming preachy. Running just under two hours, it may feel a little long, but it’s packed with powerful, provocative moments.
Mario (Max Hubacher) is a star player for the YB Bern under-21 team, and is intrigued when hotshot German player Leon (Aaron Altaras) arrives. Other players see Leon as a threat to their own advancement, but Mario is smitten. As the two star players, Mario and Leon are given a flat to share, which leads to a lusty romance that Mario is desperate to keep secret and Leon wants to declare openly.
Director-cowriter Marcel Gisler tells the story as a brightly involving slice-of-life, following these two fit young men as they grapple with their identities in very different ways. Their interaction is naturalistic in private, on the pitch and even amid the locker-room machismo. Both Hubacher and Altaras deliver startlingly introspective performances that never simplify the issues. Both guys are sexy and likeable, and they love each other, but being public about it is another question.
As the characters make decisions, the film twists into some dark directions. Hubacher’s Mario yearns for love but is concerned about the homophobia around him. Meanwhile, Altaras’ Leon would rather take on the system and lose than live a false life. What happens is depicted with raw honesty that’s sometimes painful to watch. It’s a rare film taking on prejudice that needs to be acknowledged, confronted and eliminated.
Mario opens in cinemas on Friday 13 July.