Who would have ever expected a film set in the ultra macho, extremely homophobic world of lucha libre wrestling to serve as a celebration of women and effeminate gay men? Director Roger Ross Williams along with co-writer David Teague have crafted such an experience with their biopic, Cassandro, the true story of Saúl Armendáriz, an underdog who achieved legendary status against all odds. With a fearless, career-defining performance by Gael García Bernal, this queer Rocky story has plenty of laughs and charm, but it also has real power in how it challenges gender conventions. It’s such a joy falling in love with Saúl.
When we first meet him, he’s an out gay, skinny 18-year-old living with his single mother Yocasta (the fantastic Perla de la Rosa) in late 1980s El Paso, Texas. His religious father left them when Saúl came out a few years prior, so he and his mom share a close bond. He works as an exótico in nearby Juárez, Mexico. Unlike the masked lucha libre wrestlers, exóticos don’t hide their faces and exist as the flamboyantly gay punching bags who purposefully lose their bouts to their more macho opponents while also getting brutally heckled by the audiences. Think of it as professional queer bashing. Undeterred and clearly made of stronger stuff, Saúl’s wheels start to turn after losing bout after bout.
Inspired by the women in his life such as his strong, courageous mother and his gutsy trainer Sabrina (an engaging Roberta Colindrez), Saúl creates his alter-ego, Cassandro, who sports leopard print leotards as well as makeup inspired by Yocasta, and vows to be the first exótico who wins. When he first enters the ring as Cassandro, defiantly baiting the booing crowd, feeding off of their slurs, camping it up wildly, his big gay hair flipped back just so, you can’t help but root for him. Just seeing him not bat an eye as he takes on a wrestler three times his size and give him a run for his money should inspire anyone who has ever felt threatened by a bully.
By this point, Teague and Williams have done such a great job of letting us fall in love with Saúl, warts and all. Sure, we may see him party perhaps a bit too hard and maybe trust people a little too easily, but his steadfast belief in himself keeps you riveted. His secret relationship with a closeted married fellow wrestler, soulfully played by Raúl Castillo, seems like a bad idea from the jump. Early on, he secures a manager, Lorenzo (Joaquín Cosío) who has a loving way of cheering Saúl on, but he also has an assistant Felipe, played nimbly by music superstar Bad Bunny (aka Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio) who provides an endless supply of cocaine whenever needed. This dichotomy goes under-explored and could have provided a little more conflict. Much of the external conflict, in fact, gets a little glossed over.
Regardless, Saúl’s journey has enough riches without it, culminating in a series of crowd-pleasing sequences guaranteed to get you cheering and turn on the waterworks. It also contains a brief, powerful scene which provides every queer person with the tools for how to respond to a parent who has rejected their child. Bernal’s performance in this scene, as he gazes directly into the camera, is subtle and gorgeous.
Special mention must be made of cinematographer Matias Penachino’s work, which lovingly captures the 80s and onward without fetishizing the times. The film has a visual poetry, such as in a wonderfully intimate pool scene in which Saúl and his mother daydream at a house they’d one day like to purchase and it achieves grandeur in that truly iconic final shot. Same goes for J.C. Molina’s lived-in production design, which feels so vivid and true.
It’s worth pointing out that Mexico was ahead of the United States on such issues as marriage equality despite its image as an ultra-conservative, macho society. I’d like to think that not only the acceptance but the outright celebration of queer icons such as Saúl Armendáriz contributed to such a cultural shift. Late in Cassandro, Saúl goes on a talk show and names women, famous and otherwise, who have shaped his life. He embraces women. He embraces his own femininity. The world would be such a better place if we could all be more like Saúl, but barring that, I hope Cassandro gets people to at least open their hearts.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Cassandro opens in select theaters on Friday, September 15th, 2023 and streams globally on Prime Video from Friday, September 22nd, 2023.