It’s apt that Mario is screening in the ‘Tuesday Wonder’ strand at HPPH. Many would find the movie’s theme – gay footballers, and the struggles they face simply to be themselves – to be a source of some amazement, at least in Western Europe where LGBT rights are now seen to be well established. There’s barely a bat of an eyelid these days to learn someone in the public eye is gay in music, entertainment, politics… so why should sport be different? How can professional men’s football across the entire continent not have one single out gay male player?
The director and co-writer of ‘Mario’, Marcel Gisler, was similarly baffled – at first. Admittedly “not a football connoisseur”, the Swiss film-maker was interested to learn of how the competitive, often hyper-masculine environment of a pro team sport like football can be so pressured, to the extent that conformity is everything. To get ahead in a career that can be incredibly lucrative, you need to fit into the team ethic, be easier to manage than other players fighting for your position, and have a potentially tradeable market value. When it comes to personal relationships, the expectation is to have a beautiful girlfriend who in time becomes a wife, or be ‘jack the lad’ and play the field. In terms of sexuality, there’s only one team to represent.
So when professional hopefuls Mario and Leon – team-mates and flatmates at Swiss club Young Boys Berne – unexpectedly fall in love with each other, they set into motion a chain of events they can never fully control – least of all the reactions of friends, family and team-mates. Gisler’s film fizzes with energy in its scenes on the pitch, builds tension and drama off it, and invites empathy towards its two leads – both free to explore their feelings in private through youthful exuberance and a sense of fun, but forbidden to be in love in public due to the traditions of their sport.
When the time comes to make decisions, Mario must choose between his dreams of success, or the prospect of happiness with Leon. It’s a wrench of a dilemma with which to grapple. Little wonder then, that in real life we rarely ever learn of matters of the heart affecting gay or bisexual footballers.
In ‘Mario’, we’re afforded what amounts to a brief glimpse into one of the beautiful game’s longest-running and saddest stories. If football’s really not your cup of tea, don’t worry – there’s more than enough off-field drama to keep you watching. Two of its stars picked up the highest acting accolades available in their native Switzerland and it’s received applause at film festivals worldwide this year. Go along, show support, give ‘Mario’ a cheer – and hope that one day soon, someone in the Premier League or the EFL might show that being gay and being good at football are by no means mutually exclusive.
Jon Holmes (@jonboy79)