At once hypermasculine and flamboyant, Mexican lucha libre has for long been a popular form of entertainment for the masses. An escape from the burdens of poverty and real violence, the spectacle features brightly clad heroes known as técnicos who personify the forces of good. Their adversaries, the rudos, play easily recognizable bad guys one can also cheer for. Their duels inside the ring display as much artistry as they do physical prowess.
In this larger-than-life performance of testosterone-fueled fracas, of bodies flying through the air, choreographed uppercuts, and arranged victories; the emergence of gay wrestler Saúl Armendáriz (stage name: Cassandro) in the 1980s, came as a shockwave against homophobia. Deceptively delicate in appearance, reclaiming stereotypes with colorful defiance, but just as much a brawler with ample technique as the burliest of them.
As an “exótico,” a euphemistic term used in Mexican wrestling referring to feminine LGBTQ+ wrestlers wearing glamorous outfits, Armendáriz transcended the conventions of manliness associated with this sport/show. Before him, the inclusion of exóticos came with the dismissive caveat that they must always lose against their macho counterparts.
Arbendáriz’s inspirational life story had previously been told by director Roger Ross Williams in his 2016 documentary short “The Man Without a Mask.” Later, the 2018 non-fiction feature “Cassandro, The Exotico!” tackled not only his rise to fame but the bodily injuries he sustained over nearly three decades of fights. This year’s fabulous retelling, “Cassandro,” Ross Williams’ first narrative outing, stars an irresistible Gael García Bernal as the real-life amateur luchador from in El Paso, Texas turned unexpected beacon of change.
Skepticism about documentary filmmakers crossing over to fiction, especially in a project largely in a language not their own with a myriad of culturally specific traits, is justified; but “Cassandro” results in an impressive transition for Ross Williams, as well as co-writer with David Teague, whose previous credits were predominantly as an editor.
That García Bernal’s own production company La Corriente del Golfo was involved — with Mexican artists in key positions, perhaps implicitly doubling as cultural consultants — as well as Ross Williams’ familiarity with the real-life Arbendáriz, are likely the reason why the filmmaker successfully avoided making a film with a marked outsider’s point of view.
The believable dialogue, shifting between Spanish and English as needed in an unforced manner, even includes particularly specific slang terms such as “El Chuco,” a nickname for El Paso. The cast of Mexican and Mexican American actors each speaks in the tongue they most naturally feel comfortable in. As obvious as that choice might seem, non-Latino American directors rarely consider these relevant distinctions in casting and execution.
Before becoming Cassandro, Saúl wrestled as a El Topo, a second-rate figure destined to be tossed around by the amateur wrestling stars of a clandestine event venue (an auto shop across the border in Ciudad Juarez). But upon befriending Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), a female wrestler and trainer, Saúl begins to embrace a side of himself he’d long suppressed. He takes his luchador name from a ’90s Venezuelan soap opera titled “Kassandra” and crafts his own dazzling get-ups at first fashioned from his mother’s dresses.
As Saúl/Cassandro, Garcia Bernal turns in one of his most layered performances to date. Juxtaposed with the brooding and spiteful husband he played just a few years back in Pablo Larraín’s “Emma,” one is reminded of the broad spectrum of his skillset. The Mexican actor has previously played a gay character, specifically a drag queen, in Pedro Almodóvar’s fragmented, meta drama “Bad Education,” here the finely calibrated assignment asks him to similarly put forward two personalities inside the same body — as well as the intersections between them.
Off the ring, Saúl often hides behind a veneer of shyness, perhaps born from trauma. The actor not only steers clear of stepping into offensive, caricature-like depictions of homosexuality, but also highlights his playfulness. Once Cassandro comes along, he liberates himself from the concern of other people’s opinions and exaggerates the flamboyance to make his rivals and the close-minded audience uncomfortable. Artfully, he confronts them against their homophobic biases.
As the furious crowd yells grotesque slurs during the first appearance of his new identity, Saúl, now fearless in the role of Cassandro, flaunts his panache to the tune the Spanish-language version of “I Will Survive” by the late Cuban songstress Celia Cruz. The booing turns into adoration when rather than succumbing to their hatred he showcases his hard-fought talent. This isn’t about them anymore, but about defending his self-love.
Soon, Lorenzo (veteran Mexican actor Joaquín Cosio) a shady, mullet-wearing businessman and impromptu promoter starts booking Cassandro legitimate matches, including a televised one in Mexico City, the epicenter of lucha libra, against El Hijo del Santo, the son of legendary luchador and movie star El Santo. The encounter results in an even more grandiose ovation for the warrior of exuberant presence. There’s a noticeable distinction in how cinematographer Matias Penachino shoots Saúl’s melancholic reality with a soft lighting, and the radiance of the sequences when he is in control of his destiny wrestling.
Apt musical cues abound. When Saúl and his mother sneak into the heart-shaped swimming pool of in the home of their dreams, the solemn intro of “Hasta que te conocí” by Mexican queer icon Juan Gabriel plays as organic soundtrack to Saúl’s conflicted state of mind: on the brink of financial success but in the shadow of his father’s rejection. Flashbacks to Saul’s childhood, a conventional device used with measure here, don’t overexplain the family dynamics as the son of his dad’s mistress, but convey emotional insight.
Although structured with the familiar makings of an uplifting story, “Cassandro” doesn’t sugarcoat Saul’s drug habit or his rocky romantic relationship with Gerardo, played by the always memorable Raul Castillo, a closeted married father who sneaks Saúl into his home whenever his wife is away. Castillo’s part offers further proof of how toxic masculinity derails the emotional lives of men under its yoke and of people around them.
In turn, the casting of Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, better known as reggaeton superstar Bad Bunny, as Lorenzo’s sidekick in his drug dealing operation seems gratuitous. Besides a brief kiss between the Puerto Rican singer and García Bernal, his inclusion feels inconsequential. However, part of Bad Bunny’s current popularity also derives from his stance against gender norms, which might have influenced Ross Williams’ thought process.
Glowing with García Bernal’s magnetism, “Cassandro” balances the triumphant exaltation of Arbendáriz’s singular evolution as a trailblazer who didn’t set out to become one, with the obvious, still not entirely eliminated bigotry that made his trajectory so significant and groundbreaking in the first place. The social and the personal come together every time he performs. In every agile move, a graceful blow against hatred.
“Cassandro” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon Prime Video will release it later this year.