Stars: Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Perla de la Rosa, Joaquín Cosío, Raúl Castillo, El Hijo del Santo, Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio
Writers: David Teague & Roger Ross Williams
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Release Date: September 14, 2023 (theatrical), September 22, 2023 (Prime Video)
Those who follow Mexican wrestling and its practitioners – the luchadors – are more likely to have heard of Cassandro (real name Saúl Armendáriz) than those who don’t. Then again, while he is still with us and is a consultant on the film that bears his stage name, Cassandro was mostly active in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so even many contemporary luchador fans may not be familiar with him.
CASSANDRO is a charming and affecting look at Saúl, played here by Gael García Bernal. We meet Saúl as a young man, living with his beloved mother Yocasta (Perla de la Rosa) in El Paso, Texas.
Saúl works at Ray’s car repair facility in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The shop doubles as an amateur wrestling ring at night. Saúl wrestles there as a masked luchador under the name of El Topo (The Mole), and consistently gets beaten.
Wanting to win, he finally approaches fellow wrestler and trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez). Sabrina observes that the lithe Saúl is never going to make a name for himself against the bigger, heavier luchadors if he continues to emulate them. She suggests that he instead fight maskless as an exótico. The exóticos are openly gay, flamboyant, and wear “drag” (since all we see hear are capes and spangly leotards, “drag” may be overstating it). They fight more conventional luchadors, but are seen as inherently villainous because they are flouting traditional gender roles.
Saúl at first tells Sabrina that he doesn’t want to be an exótico because “they don’t let exóticos win.” But then he’s inspired to make a costume and invent a character for himself: Cassandro. When Sabrina sees the sketches, she points out that this is an exótico. “But he wins,” Saúl counters, explaining his twist.
For those (like this reviewer) who never saw the real Cassandro in action, we can only assume that he was propelled to fame by the combination of panache, charisma, mischief, and actual wrestling skill that Bernal as Saúl brings to the character. He is a born showman, gloriously in his element in the ring.
And the crowd responds, going from hurling homophobic epithets to encouragingly shouting Cassandro’s name. It’s a big sea change, not only for Cassandro and his fellow exóticos, but also for acceptance of gay men as people who can be seen as heroic.
Outside the ring, there’s the kind of storyline that goes with most showbiz tales. Saúl has a taste for alcohol and drugs. Also, like his mother, he pines for a married lover who is clearly never going to leave his conventional lifestyle.
This part of CASSANDRO is handled well enough, but the film truly shines when it’s with Cassandro as he discovers his own power. Director Roger Ross Williams and his co-scenarist David Teague carefully modulate the tone so that there is always a sense of reality. By the time they get to a near-climactic scene that demonstrates what Cassandro means to the community, they’ve earned the right to the re-enactment.
Enough cannot be said about Bernal here. He is surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast, including Colindrez, de la Rosa, Joaquín Cosío as a fight promoter, and Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, better known as Bad Bunny, as an amiable assistant. Famous luchador El Hijo del Santo appears as himself (masked as usual).
There is an uncommon sweetness in CASSANDRO. The filmmakers feel no need to hit us over the head in a metaphorical luchador move with the message. They know that the tale speaks for itself, and Bernal is its megaphone.
Photos of the real Cassandro accompany the closing credits. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles.
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Article: Movie Review: CASSANDRO