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‘Cassandro’ (review)

There is a moment early in the film where the titular character is sulking in the locker room after another stinging, but expected loss in the ring.

A fellow wrestler gets cute and nonchalantly yells to Saúl, “You should be an exotico.”

Saúl defiantly says no because “Exotico’s always loose.”

What seems like another case of someone looking to improve their station from perennial loser to superstar riches is a journey searching for much more.

Cassandro tells the inspiring true story of Saúl Armendáriz, a gay Mexican wrestler from El Paso, Texas, who rises to fame after becoming ‘Cassandro’ the “Liberace of Lucha Libre.” In the process, he upends the macho wrestling world and his own life.

Gael García Bernal (Marvel’s Werewolf by Night) leads a stellar cast, poignantly delivering engaging performances that serve the story unrestrainedly. Gael García Bernal is powerfully sensational as Saúl/Cassandro, and equally remarkable is Perla De La Rosa as Yocasta, Saúl’s mother.

The mother/son relationship between Saúl and Yocasta is the heart of the film. De La Rosa exudes a mother’s love as Yocasta fiercely loves her son, but that doesn’t stop her from throwing a painful truth in Saúl’s face from time to time. One might ask themselves how she could constantly remind her son of so much pain.

It’s love, and it’s not perfect. It’s an example of the depth that Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams produces nearly from moment to moment.

Saúl’s trek to stardom begins as a jobber named El Topo, a wrestler whose job is to lose while making the stars look good. Eventually, he blossoms into the international sensation, Cassandro.

An Exótico wrestles in drag and has an androgynous flair to their performance in the ring. It’s nothing new in Lucha Libre. However, it’s always been considered a subgenre in Mexico that is good for a laugh but rarely dignified.

The dignity of the role is what Saúl is talking about when he says they always lose. It’s not that exóticos are winless in the ring, but they are easily cast aside, almost considered second-class citizens, like the struggle many LGBTQIA+ individuals have found themselves in throughout their lives. When Saúl finally decides to wrestle as Cassandro, he initially has some trepidation and quietly assumes responsibility for the role.

“I’m going to be the exótico that wins” is more than a cash grab or a way to glisten under the bright lights; but a mission to flip the script on art imitating life. Roger Ross Williams and co-writer David Teague take a superb hand with how this aspect of the movie unfolds. Cassandro’s path to dignified superstardom is not a bombastic call to arms but a quiet personal voyage that inspiringly sets the stage for something more, and how it resonates with people who identify with Cassandro, who is a proud gay man who is being himself.

The pro wrestling element of the film does a good job of conveying how Lucha Libre is ingrained in Mexican culture. Lucha Libre translates to free fight, and Cassandro often refers to his in-ring encounters as fights instead of matches, bringing authenticity to how wrestling is talked about south of the border.

Similar to the independent wrestling scene in the U.S., the lower levels of Lucha Libre can be a dirty grind, even more so due to its cultural significance. While how Bernal and the other wrestlers lock up to start the match could use some improvement in this former wrestler’s opinion, it’s a minor detail that only diehard wrestling enthusiasts would notice. Bernal handles wrestling’s physicality well, augmenting his performance as he brings Cassandro to life inside the squared circle.

Cassandro’s match with El Hijo del Santo was a pivotal moment in his career and the life of Saúl Armendáriz. It’s a balancing act that simultaneously brings tragedy and triumph, excellently told through William’s lens and masterfully conveyed by Bernal’s performance. El Hijo del Santo is a big deal in Lucha Libre, and he’s the son of the legend El Santo, whose cultural significance in Mexico dwarfs Hulk Hogan and The Rock’s popularity combined.

Having the real El Hijo del Santo appear in the film to help tell Cassandro’s story was a treat. Cassandro was gaining momentum as an attraction, but his match with del Santo made him a star, proving that Cassandro and exóticos are more than worthy of reaching for the stars.

International megastar Bad Bunny performs as a fixer for a local promoter who books matches for Cassandro. Bad Bunny might be the biggest star on the planet right now, and his first on-screen kiss, while not super crucial to the narrative, could be seen as a strong statement from someone considered a great LGBTQIA+ ally.

While William’s balancing act between Cassandro’s life in and out of the ring prevents the narrative from diving further into the Lucha Libre of it all, what we get is more than enough. Cassandro’s personal life does the bulk of the heavy lifting narratively. Williams often lingers on silent moments in a fashion that often has the loudest voice in the film. Bernal speaks profoundly through quiet smiles, cries, party, and pain.

Part of that pain deals with love on two fronts. Saúl is looking to win over a fellow wrestler who is closeted and married while also looking for his father’s approval. One ends in heartbreak, while the other brings a rousing finality that exemplifies Cassandro’s growth along this journey. Like some of my favorite wrestling matches, I cheered when the moment occurred, and Bernal handled it gracefully.

Revisiting, uplifting, and inspiring will be some of the words used to describe Cassandro. All of the above is correct, but there is more here. It’s a resounding message that doesn’t hit the viewer on the nose. Williams doesn’t go for cheap laughs at Cassandro’s expense, which honors the story and accomplishments of Saúl Armendáriz, highlighting his fearless embrace of his identity.

Cassandro won’t be for everyone, as drawn-out moments of silence might feel like a chore for some. One thing that is undeniable is that Williams leaves it all in the ring with his ability to tell and shape a story, and Gael García Bernal is a name we’re going to see in lights a lot more.

Produced by Gerardo Gatica, Todd Black,
David Bloomfield, Ted Hope, Julie Goldman

Written by Roger Ross Williams, David Teague
Directed by Roger Ross Williams 
Starring Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez,Perla De La Rosa,
Joaquín Cosío, Raúl Castillo, El Hijo del Santo, Bad Bunny

Cassandro is now playing in select theaters
and streaming on Amazon Prime Video
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