In a year of pandemic, social unrest and political polarization, one Oscar-contending documentary arrived to lift people’s spirits, not just in the U.S. but around the world.
Mucho Mucho Amor tells the story of a beloved cultural icon, Walter Mercado, an astrologer who delivered daily horoscopes on television to avid fans in his native Puerto Rico, throughout Latin America, and other parts of the globe.
“Walter was huge,” says Cristina Costantini, who directed the Netflix documentary with Kareem Tabsch. “One hundred twenty million people a day would tune in to watch Walter, which is like a Super Bowl audience every single day. Part of the reason that we wanted to make this movie is just to honor this incredible legacy.”
From his debut in 1969, what set Mercado apart was his arresting appearance: He blurred gender lines, adorned in elaborate capes and jewelry, his hair blow-dried into a nimbus of cotton candy.
“He was gender nonconforming before that was a thing. He was mixing astrology with world religions and preaching this kind of holistic message of love and faith and hope in this really unique way,” notes Costantini. “Especially in a homophobic culture, especially in a super Catholic culture, to be that, to be breaking all of those rules and then to be loved for it is totally unheard of.”
“We had never seen anybody who looked like Walter…who expressed themselves like Walter, or who talked about the things Walter talked about,” adds Tabsch. “He was just kind of this alien figure.”
Tabsch, 40, and Costantini, 30, each grew up in Latino families where Mercado was a regular presence.
“We had the same exact experience 10 years apart, of sitting down in front of the television and watching him with our abuelas,” recalls Tabsch. “It was appointment viewing at a quarter to six every afternoon, and Walter had the power to shut up an entire Latino household because if you spoke, you’d get like a flip flop on the side of the head. But it was just this kind of unifying factor across more than one generation.”
There was a discernible pattern to Mercado’s astrological readings.
“If you listen to his horoscopes very closely, there’s only a few messages that come across. It’s like, ‘Libra, tomorrow is going to be a better day. Scorpio, yesterday was hard, but keep going.’ And every single one, for 30 years, was more or less the same,” Costantini observes. “It was, ‘…Things are hard right now, you might be going through a difficult time, but have hope, have love, have faith.’ And that is an incredibly important message.”
The title of the film comes from Mercado’s sign-off to his audience, where he always wished them “mucho, mucho amor” (much, much love). The filmmakers admit they harbored doubts about using a title with Spanish words in it.
“We were like, ‘Are people in Poughkeepsie going to watch a movie called Mucho Mucho Amor, and know whatever the hell that is?’” Tabsch tells Deadline. “We joke that we made this film so Walter could be seen by a wider audience, but sometimes I’ll say by a whiter audience, because people who did not grow up with him, knowing who he is, have had this like joyful discovery of him, and so many of them have been clicking on a movie called Mucho Mucho Amor and so that’s kind of this great commentary on our world and our culture.”
Netflix acquired the documentary shortly before its world premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film became a hit on the streaming service when it debuted last July, validating the filmmakers who faced struggles to get it made.
“We weren’t funded. We had maybe a seventh of the budget that we needed to make this movie,” Costantini states, adding that at one point she met with an agent who discouraged her from proceeding.
“She said, ‘Crossover stories don’t really work for us. They’re hard to sell,’” Costantini remembers. “The real problem that I saw was that there were not people in the rooms commissioning documentaries, or not enough, who understood the importance of Walter in our community…I think it speaks to the importance of representation in these rooms.”
When Costantini and Tabsch began filming with Mercado, the astrologer was an active octogenarian. But his health began to decline and he died in November 2019, at the age of 87, just a couple of months before the Sundance premiere. He was a born performer, and as such it was difficult for the filmmakers to break through the performer’s carapace.
“One of my favorite parts in the film,” Costantini shares, “we’re talking about his sexuality and how he identifies and if he’s attracted to men or women or both and he says, ‘I have sexuality with the wind. I have sexuality with the stars. For me, sexuality is not this physical thing.’ And Kareem says, ‘Okay, but you’re not telling me you’re a virgin.’ And he kind of squares up to the camera and goes, ‘The only one in town.’ Kareem and I laughed so hard.”
There was a challenge getting the idea of a documentary across to Mercado and his loyal assistant Willy Acosta, who approached it from a different frame of reference.
“They would say, ‘Okay, so this morning we’re going to perform breakfast for you, and this is what he will be wearing…’” recalls Costantini. “We’d have to say, ‘No, no, no.’ At the very beginning [of filming] they asked us for the scripts. They’re like, ‘When will I receive the script for this morning?’ The longer we were with them, the more they understood that we were just filming him doing his thing.”
Aware of his fading health, Mercado told the directors, “My spirit and my message is going to be eternal.”
The filmmakers believe that’s true.
“A hundred percent, a hundred percent,” insists Tabsch. “There will never be another Walter Mercado. I mean, the magnetism, the power he had to make you feel loved and special…Watching him made you feel good.”
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