Cassandro (2023)

Uplifting ‘Cassandro’ puts a hold on you

If ever a wrestling movie pinned you to the canvas, it’s “Cassandro,” the wildly flamboyant tale of one of lucha libre’s most colorful, and least likely, gladiators. As played by Mexican treasure, Gael Garcia Bernal, Cassandro is a walking contradiction: Confident, yet filled with doubt; macho, yet effete; eager, yet apprehensive. But his goal is clear. And that’s to be himself, an openly gay luchador seeking to forever change a homoerotic sport averse to homosexuality.

In many ways, Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams (“Music By Prudence”) has created a real-life Superman, sporting a dual identity of milquetoast El Paso car-detailer by day and hunky hero by night. But in order for art to imitate the life of Saúl Armendáriz, aka Cassandro, Williams needed a star as handsome and charismatic as Bernal to pull it off. And the Golden Globe nominee (“Mozart in the Jungle”) delivers a performance rich in nuance, wringing every emotion from a script by Williams and regular collaborator David Teague that encompasses rage, fragility, joy and despair, to ultimately emerge victorious.

Although there’s a lot of “Rocky” here, it’s far from formulaic. What Bernal concocts is an intoxicating original. His Cassandro defies description, and were he not an actual person, you probably wouldn’t believe a lick of his remarkable story. Much of that authenticity derives from Williams’ extensive background in documentary filmmaking. In fact, it was a short Williams did on Cassandro for Amazon Prime that launched the luchador’s life story into his feature film directorial debut. In so doing, Williams checks all the boxes necessary to construct a highly entertaining work culminating in an emotional chokehold you don’t see coming.

Amid the tears, and many laughs, is a wonderful immersion into a sport rich in tradition and spectacle. It’s nothing like you’re used to seeing in WWE, although many of the moves and acrobatics are similar. Where they differ most dramatically is the presence of “exoticos,” luchadors who dress in drag to stand in striking contrast to their “manly” opponents. Prior to Cassandro’s arrival in the 1990s, these effeminate grapplers were rich fodder for jeers and easy scores for the most popular ring kings. Cassandro made it his daring mission to prove exoticos could be more than just objects of ridicule. More importantly, his trailblazing made it possible for them to win, both in and out of the ring. And in eschewing the mask customarily worn by luchadors, he simultaneously set a standard of openness and gay pride.

It’s tempting to heap all the credit upon Bernal’s flawless turn, both emotionally and physically. But it’s impossible to overlook Marcelo Zarvos’ stirring score, Mari Estela Fernández’s outrageous wrestling costumes and JC Molina’s evocative production designs capturing lucha libre from its roots in makeshift rings in unlikely arenas, like the auto repair shop where we first witness the future Cassandro getting the caca beat out of him, to the largest of stages, where he ultimately became a national phenomenon. Oh, BTW, the wrestling inside the ring, shot by Matias Penachino, is superbly executed by actual luchadors exhibiting all the dexterity of a Simone Biles.

It’s an impressive collaborative effort, but you’re most impacted by the inspiring relationships Cassandro builds with his hardscrabble single mom, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa); his supportive trainer, Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez); and secret lover, fellow luchador, Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), a family man living a lie Cassandro cannot comprehend. Yet, Cassandro’s driving force is the person seldom seen, his father, Eduardo (Robert Salas), who from conception abandoned the son he fathered with his mistress, Yocasta. In a world teeming with brutal opponents, he is Cassandro’s most gnawing nemesis, but also the catalyst for proving to himself that his life matters.

The real Cassandro has often remarked that his conquests on the mat cannot compare to the triumphs he’s experienced as a role model for thousands of gay teenagers in a nation where machismo reigns supreme. There’s a moment near the end when Cassandro comes face to face with one such boy thanking the luchador for giving him the courage to come out to his father. It’s just a simple scene, but one that moves you to no end. And it’s a grip from which there’s no escaping.

Movie review


Rated: R for drug use, language and sexual content

Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Perla de la Rosa, Roberta Colindrez and Raúl Castillo

Director: Roger Ross Williams

Writers: David Teague and Roger Ross Williams

Runtime: 107 minutes

Where: On Amazon Prime

Grade: A-

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