A bone-jarring and equally sensual mix of human emotion and lucha libre smackdowns, Cassandro shapes up as a compelling biographical character study about Mexican luchador pro wrestler Saúl Armendariz, who built a career as an exotico wrestler under the ring name of Cassandro. A film with a lot of heart and grace that also sustains itself as a genuinely observed character study.
Working from a script that he co-wrote with David Teague, documentary writer and director Roger Ross Williams makes his narrative directorial debut with some impressive style and another captivating performance by Gael Garcia Bernal in Cassandro. While the first hour follows the basic structure of how Saul overcame a lot of obstacles of homophobia, including backstories with the relationship of his mother and many other circumstances that arise from Cassandro’s journey, The wrestling matches are well staged, but not quite as visceral as Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, but the film has a lot of heart. As the film progresses, most of the drama takes place outside of the ring, including a deeply moving payoff that is undeniably satisfying.
The biopic begins with Saúl Armendáriz (Bernal) as an aspiring luchador living in his birth town of El Paso, Texas, with his mother (Perla De La Rose) during the early 1980s. On weekends, he travels to Mexico and wrestles under the name El Topo, but Saul never quite finds fulfillment with his wrestling persona. He never quite finds his agility, skills, or how to work the crowd that he yearns for. He watches fellow luchadores wrestle and begins to notice how exoticos can really work the crowd, who are feminized and flamboyant male wrestlers that wear drag and campy outfits. A lot of exoticos are straight wrestlers who wear campy outfits so they can get cheap heat from the crowd as they yell homophobic slurs during the matches. Saul himself is actually gay and begins to build up his own exotico character known as Cassandro. He ends up getting a new trainer named Sabrina. His new gimmick has a cheetah print leotard that plays homage to his mother’s style when he was a young child.
Most exóticos are straight men playing up feminine clichés and where fans enjoy hurling gay slurs as they wrestle, but Armendáriz himself is gay. He ends up being empowered by his renowned trainer, Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), who encourages him to transcend the exotico, who often loses and easily puts over other wrestlers. They make a pact that Armendariz will not be a typical jobber wrestler who plays a cheap heel, but one with skill that will awe the crowd with his skill and endurance. He wants to gain respect from wrestling fans. Sabrina trains Armendáriz hard in the ring, building up his strength and stamina, which leads to him eventually winning matches and wrestling some larger cards. He ends up getting some larger promotions as well from his manager, Lorenzo (Joaquin Cosio), and meanwhile, Armendariz gets in a relationship with a married man named Gerardo (Raul Castillo), which leads to Armendariz feeling more isolated and getting addicted to cocaine from Lorezon’s assistant named Felipe (Bad Bunny).
Courtesy Amazon Prime Studios
From there, the rest of the narrative feels slightly underwritten. Especially one moment when a fellow wrestler warns him about the sports traditions. While compelling and well-crafted, some of the raw authenticity comes off slightly, as it makes you wonder how the material would have been had it been helmed by a more visceral Mexican filmmaker like Alejandro G. Iñárritu. While Cassandro doesn’t quite reach the depths of being a substantial piece of queer cinema like many other titles this year, as the film plays things a little too cautiously, it doesn’t make much sense to still get engaged by the titular story. The film also never gets bogged down by cloying sentimentality. Bernal once again delivers a fearless performance that is worthy of continued adoration, bulking up an emotionally wounded real-life character who plows his way through many barriers to achieve lucha libre success. With that, Cassandro does an excellent job of exploring staying true to yourself and defying misconceptions. Bernal does quite the job of bringing that charisma to life.
Cassandro is now streaming on Amazon Prime