Professional wrestling has always had a homoerotic subtext, and in Mexico (where the “sport” is known as “lucha libre”), it’s been right on the surface thanks to exóticos: wrestlers in drag who serve as the queer-signaling foils for heroic straight wrestlers. Known for their flamboyance and glamor, exóticos are the bold antithesis of their macho adversaries.
Led by a phenomenal performance by Gael García Bernal, Cassandro is the wild and entertaining story of one such individual, and the trailblazing path he paved by refusing to hide who he was—or to accept his second-class status both in and out of the ring.
The fictional feature debut of Roger Ross Williams, the first Black filmmaker to nab an Academy Award (for 2010’s documentary short Music by Prudence), Cassandro is a showcase for its headliner, whose turn as the real-life title character—whose actual name is Saúl Armendáriz—is a tour-de-force of open, vibrant, defiant expressiveness.
Bernal has always been an accomplished leading man with the spirit of a character actor, and his latest provides him with the part for which he’s been waiting, allowing him to demonstrate the range of his ferocity, charm and sensitivity. Never taking a wrong step as the famed exótico, Bernal is a charismatic force of nature, his magnetism so great that it elevates Williams’ drama above its clunkier, clichéd elements.
Premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Cassandro opens with its protagonist—his hair bleach-blonde on top, his frame fit but hardly ripped—arriving at an auto garage where he dons a face mask like his fellow wrestlers and, under the moniker El Topo (i.e., the Mouse), gives it his all in a predetermined losing effort against a goliath known as Gigantico (played by one of the film’s many legitimate luchadors). For Saúl, it’s an unrewarding role that appears to promise a future of inescapable also-ran anonymity, and it’s thus far less appealing to him than the exóticos who subsequently take center stage.
Embellished with bold makeup and encased in glitzy costumes, the exóticos’ unabashed showiness is a bright light in this dingy, testosterone-y environment. In a beautifully subtle shot that—set to the romantic horns of Marcelo Zarvos’ score—follows Saúl’s gaze to one such performer, they transfix Saúl’s attention and, in doing so, suggest to him a possible way out of his go-nowhere rut.
This moment proves to be an epiphany for Saúl, motivating him to seek out respected trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), who performs under the handle “Lady Anarquía,” and who takes to Saúl and his daring idea: to embody a new exótico named Cassandro, who bucks tradition by going maskless and, more stunning still, winning.
In an arena in which exóticos are expected to roll over for opponents and suffer the prejudiced slings and arrows of the crowd, Saúl intends to fabulously spit in the eye of an establishment that doesn’t take kindly to change. In doing so, he strives to be his authentic self, something that’s made more difficult by his fraught relationship with two men who can’t accept homosexuality and share a similar pattern of betrayal, deceit and abandonment.
The first of those is Saúl’s father Eduardo (Robert Salas), who was married and had a family when he began his dalliance with Saúl’s mother Yocasta (Perla de la Rosa). Yet to recover from his rejection, Yocasta habitually drags her son to a baseball diamond where she can closely pine after her former flame. A brash working-class woman with a fondness for leopard-print dresses, Yocasta is more like a best friend than a mom to Saúl, and she’s certainly his inspiration (along with telenovela actresses) for Cassandro’s bold flair.
Unfortunately, though, Saúl has also followed in his mother’s footsteps with regards to his love life, having become mired in an affair with a fellow luchador named Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), who has a wife and kids and only agrees to see Saúl in empty dressing rooms and, via the back door, in his house when his clan is away.
Cassandro is such an instant sensation that he immediately catches the eye of criminal promoter Lorenzo (Narcos: Mexico’ Joaquín Cosío), who puts him on the fast track to stardom while having his underling Felipe (Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny) supply him with all the cocaine he needs. Cassandro’s ascent is swift, albeit not without complications, as Yocasta frets about the danger her son courts with his out-and-proud lifestyle, and Gerardo—with whom he shares a fiery chemistry—bristles at his paramour’s refusal to remain hidden in the shadows.
Cassandro navigates those dynamics with aplomb, showering most of its characters with empathy while attuning itself to Saúl’s unashamed brazenness, which comes to full-bodied fruition when he makes his entrances as Cassandro, his eyes alight with exuberant, taunting insolence and his movements as playful as they are vigorous.
Bernal radiates fireball personality as Cassandro, yet the key to his tour-de-force is the simultaneously cheeky and wounded soul he brings to Saúl. There’s no guile to Bernal’s performance, only a triumphant blend of audaciousness, love, and need. He’s so spectacular that it’s relatively easy to overlook Cassandro’s devolution into creaky Sundance-grade convention, here epitomized by a painful tragedy, a TV talk-show appearance in which a young boy thanks Saúl for inspiring him to come out as gay (to an accepting father, no less), and a final confrontation between Saúl and his own MIA paterfamilias.
That Bernal sells as much of this corny material as he does is a testament to his poised, graceful work, and he allows the film to coast over its speed bumps on the way to a feel-good climax involving Saúl seizing his shot at the big time in Mexico City against luchador legend Son of Santo.
Opposite strong turns from Colindrez, de la Rosa and the consistently excellent Castillo, Bernal infuses Cassandro with the tenderness and determination demanded by its story, transforming the proceedings into a touching portrait of changing the world by knowing, and staying true, to one’s heart.
Cassandro may not be as famous stateside as Hulk Hogan and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but regardless of its intermittent shortcomings, Williams’ film makes a winning case that, by promoting a pioneering vision of queer strength and independence, he deserves to be considered a wrestling legend.
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