In macho Latin America, “Brokeback Mountain” has turned out to be a tricky sell.

Box office is fair to middling, and distribs have been careful to tout the pic as a romance rather than a gay-themed pic.

While South American countries like Brazil and Argentina tend to have more liberal attitudes — a comic strip about two gay “gauchos” has been running in daily papers in Sao Paulo since 1987 — it’s tougher going in religious Mexico.

Mexican distrib Videocine shifted “Brokeback’s” original Feb. 24 release date to Oscar weekend in order to emphasize the pics’ awards.

“We are trying to leave the romantic side out of it,” says Videocine marketing head Carlos Jimenez. “Gay-themed movies have not functioned well in the past.”

In Mexico, pic was third in its opening weekend, behind “Firewall” and sequel “Underworld: Evolution,” besting other Hollywood popcorn pics such as “The Pink Panther.”

Videocine focused on the film’s multiple awards, steering clear of any reference to its gay subject matter. Distrib took Focus Features’ advice not to advertise in gay publications.

“Videocine was apprehensive at first,” says Elba McAllister of Colombia’s Cineplex, which pre-bought all Latin American rights to the drama in Cannes and has sold it to distribs across the region. “It’s a film best sold on the quality of its director, cinematography and awards,” she says.

If pic does gain a following, it could lift homegrown product with gay themes. Berlin Teddy Award winner “A Thousand Clouds of Peace,” first pic from Mexico’s Julian Hernandez, managed a U.S. release by Strand Releasing but did little business back home. The hope is that “Brokeback Mountain” will help boost acceptance for Hernandez’s second gay-themed pic, “Broken Sky,” which Strand picked up in Berlin.

Ang Lee’s drama has done brisk but not spectacular business in Argentina and Brazil. Pic opened second in Argentina Feb. 2, but it’s now lagging behind “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

In Brazil, distrib Europa Filmes targeted female auds. “We are marketing it as a love story,” says Europa’s Marco Aurelio Marcondes.

Homegrown pics with homosexual subject matter are still scarce in South America. Argentina’s Marcelo Pineyro reaped box office and critical gold with his gay action thriller “Plata Quemada” (Burnt Money) in 2000, while Argentine multihyphenate Jose Glusman recently wrapped “Solos,” a comedy about two men who turn to each other after failed relationships with women.

(Marcelo Cajueiro in Brazil, Michael O’Boyle in Mexico and Charles Newbery in Argentina contributed to this report.)