Gael García Bernal has always had a boyish charm, but in Cassandro, starring as the titular lucha libre and LGBTQ+ icon, he turns that charm into a playful performance that walks the line of camp in just the right places to evoke the flamboyance at the intersection of professional wrestling and drag. Bernal is having so much fun, it’s impossible to resist the energy and thrill of Cassandro, even if you don’t know anything about lucha libre or Cassandro himself. Directed by Roger Ross Williams (who also co-wrote the script with David Teague), Cassandro tells the story of Saúl Armendáriz, a luchador who rose to prominence in the early 1990s and changed the game for “exóticos”, the drag-inspired luchadors who entertained the crowd but always lost the fight.
Saúl begins his career as “El Topo”, but his size—he is laughably smaller than the other luchadors—makes him a hard sell in the ring. Saúl wants to win, though, and though he first rejects the idea of competing as an exótico, because they always lose, he eventually embraces it and comes up with a new character for the ring: Cassandro, a flamboyant luchador best described as “Liberace but lucha libre”. Williams previously directed a documentary short about Cassandro called The Man Without a Mask, but here he trades total accuracy for a story concentrated on Saúl’s ascent to the top of lucha libre, and his relationship with his mother, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa). Cassandro cleans up the story a bit, but it’s an entertaining, inspiring film, sure to warm hearts and pump fists, regardless of your feelings on professional wrestling going into the film.
What sets Saúl apart on the amateur luchador circuit in and around El Paso are two things: one, he is more talented than the other luchadors, and two, he is openly gay. Though they wrestle in drag, most exóticos were not gay, or at least weren’t out, but Saúl embraced his identity in the ring, even if his relationship with a fellow luchador—married and in the closet—is kept under wraps. Even knowing nothing about lucha libre, Williams stages the wrestling bouts so that it is easy to grasp the appeal of Cassandro. He’s fun, he’s a showman, he’s actually a very good wrestler. Cassandro combines entertaining theatricality with ferocious skills and wins homophobic crowds over by first playing to their jeers, then encouraging their cheers when he executes a cool move. Bernal, with his sprightly charisma, is perfect for this kind of spotlight-commanding performance.
But Bernal has also always had an old-soul presence on screen, which has only heightened with age. As puckish as Cassandro is in the ring, Saúl is world weary out of it. He snatches happiness in fits and starts, only getting to be with his lover sporadically, and coping with his mother’s long-term heartbreak over his father, another married man. This is something mother and son have in common; though Yocasta loves her son and wants him to find someone who “isn’t mean”, as far as the film goes, Saúl never does fulfill that wish for her. Yocasta and Saúl are very close, and Bernal and De La Rosa have a wonderful, grounded chemistry that anchors the film. When asked about his inspirations, Saúl cites his mother, whose support enabled him to not only come out, but also to embrace his identity in the ring—some of his early costumes were made from repurposing her dresses.
With a thumping soundtrack, including Celia Cruz’s Spanish-language cover of “I Will Survive”, and Bernal’s tremendous performance, Cassandro tells the story of a groundbreaker with a verve that would do Cassandro himself proud. Though it is set in the world of lucha libre and there are multiple matches in the film, it’s not really a “sports movie”, as the emotional center of the film is Saúl’s relationship with his mother, and the matches only serve to show how Cassandro’s confidence in the ring bleeds into Saúl’s confidence in real life, and how that, in turn, leads to Saúl finding strength in himself. The world doesn’t suddenly become sunshine and roses where everyone accepts and loves Saúl, but as he stands more solidly within his space, it becomes easier for him to accept and love himself, and walk away from those who don’t. And he gets to see a new generation of lucha libre fans finding their self-acceptance, too, bringing everything full circle. Cassandro is the kind of film that makes you want to stand up and cheer and then hug somebody.