Cassandro – Review

Cassandro In the Venn Diagram of ultra masculine Mexican luchadors and sparkly, perfomative “camp”, you can’t imagine there would be much crossover. The middle space would be non-existent. And yet, Roger Ross Williams’ biopic of the “Liberace of luchador” finds exactly this space.

Williams’ dives inside the world of Mexican wrestling, where there are “technicos” (the good guys), “rudos” (the villains) and “exoticos” (wrestlers who are often flamboyant drag stereotypes who are, crucially, never allowed to win in the ring). His biopic of the famous Saúl Armendáriz – who eventually chose the alter ego of Cassandro when competing – focuses on the politics of both the sporting and the personal. We don’t see too much action in the ring, this is definitely a film that focuses on attitudes and culture.

Armendáriz (played by Gael García Bernal) starts off the film as El Topo, a small-time wrestler who isn’t taken seriously in the ring and is kept on the periphery outside of it. Because he is one of the few openly gay “exoticos”, his appearances with his – much larger and more muscular – competitors are met with homophobic slurs and cries for his violent defeat. Weary of always being cast as the “runt”, Saúl decides to do something dramatically different with his wrestling career. Not only is he going mask-less, he’s stepping into an ostentatious new alter ego, Cassandro. But more than that, he’s refusing to lose.

Where Cassandro excels is not in extravagant set-pieces in the ring. (Although, you do get to see your fair share of an unusually puny looking García Bernal being bounced around by men who must easily be around 7 feet tall.) It is in Saúl’s own story. We see glimpses – via flashback – of a homophobic father who spurred his young son’s interest in wrestling whilst condemning his sexuality. We see his mother (played by Perla de la Rosa), who is sneered at by locals and struggling with addiction. We see Sabrina (Roberts Colindrez), a female wrestler who trains with him and encourages him to be his authentic self. We see wrestling promoters only too happy to encourage big fights for big fees. And, most crucially, we see how Saúl navigates all of this; how he balances his new found fame, reactions to his sexuality and his messy home life.

Although the story follows a rather typical “underdog in a big sport” kind of narrative, it is Gael García Bernal who really sells it. He is phenomenal in the title role. He brings so much pathos, so much energy to Armendáriz where others may have only seen the stereotypes. He is clearly someone who craves love and attention – both in and out of the ring – but this is never shown as a weakness or narcissistic. His determination to break boundaries and to be accepted is palpable. The affection between him and Perla de la Rosa’s Yocasta is incredible. They are two outcasts; both longing to find what they have with each other in wider society.

Cassandro Matias Penachino’s cinematography complements Roger Ross Williams’ direction perfectly. There are huge bursts of colour when Cassandro finally steps into the ring but – as most of the story does not take place here – we see gorgeously intense close ups in dimly lit rooms; personal tragedies filling up the whole screen. García Bernal’s breathtakingly emotive eyes are often made a feature to drive the drama home.

Mariestela Fernández’s costume design and the entire make up team really bring Cassandro to life. Saúl transforms from a slightly dodgy yellow blonde dye job in a vest to a flawlessly realised showman, complete with glittery eye make up and matador-esque coat and boots. And yet, despite all the costuming, he’s no longer hiding. This is who he is truly meant to be.

As noted, Cassandro is a bit light on the sporting elements of Armendáriz’s career, but we are treated to one big “final showdown”, with all the dramatic pauses and life lessons that you’d expect of such a piece. It’s fascinating to watch García Bernal use his physicality in these moments, dominating the ring with the swish of a coat tail or vogue-ing against the ropes. Although he is still desperate to prove himself via a win, this very display of his authentic self (despite homophobic slurs still echoing from the crowd) feels like a win in itself.

Although the script feels a bit formulaic and some of the bigger issues surrounding Saúl’s personal and professional life are clumsily swept over, Cassandro is a joy to watch. Gael García Bernal (who, let’s be honest, is excellent in everything) gives one of the best performances of his career and, in doing so, raises this sporting biopic right off the ropes and back into the ring.

Cassandro is currently screening on Amazon Prime.


Mary Munoz
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