The Inverse Review

Cassandro Unmasks the “Liberace of Lucha Libre” in a Breezy, Triumphant Drama

Gael García Bernal gives a career-best performance as the openly gay wrestler.

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The world of lucha libre is a world of artistry, of poetry — and of a strict gender binary.

There's a clear hierarchy in the sport: the técnicos are the good guys, and they typically face off against rudos, archetypical tough guys that like to bend the rules of the ring. Then, there are exóticos: effeminate, flamboyant fighters that are pretty much destined to lose, even if it means having to throw the match. Audiences are united in their ire against the latter. To see an openly queer fighter, the object of their disgust, triumphing over their machismo opponents, would likely cause an uproar either way. This is the delicate nature of the game — at least, it was when Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal) first stepped onto the scene in the mid ‘80s — and it’s a balance that Armendáriz made quick work of upsetting.

With Cassandro, director Roger Ross Williams continues his lifetime fascination with Armendáriz, a real-life wrestler now famously known as the “Liberace of Lucha Libre.” Previously a documentary filmmaker, Ross Williams has already committed his subject’s life to the screen twice over. Cassandro marks his debut narrative feature, and his first as a co-writer as well (alongside David Teague). With Gael García Bernal in the titular role, Cassandro doubles as a comprehensive glimpse into a world that lives and dies on its pageantry — and as a triumphant homage to the man that dared to color outside its strict lines.

Cassandro El Exotico performs onstage in 2014.

Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

We first meet Saúl as he treks across the border from El Paso, TX, to an amateur match in Ciudad Juarez. There, in an auto repair shop retrofitted for after-hours lucha fights, he is El Topo — a small, scrappy nuisance that doesn’t quite fit into any archetype. He’s frequently paired with Gigantico, a gruff rudo who’s twice his size and always has the crowd on his side.

As El Topo, Saúl always loses. But he wouldn’t mind the losing if he could inject some showmanship, some flair, into the performances. Gigantico is all brute force — no poetry, no fun. But the crowd loves him anyway, just as they love to hate the exóticos that fight in other matches.

Saúl watches the exóticos with a wistfulness that’s hard to ignore. He yearns to put on the kind of show that they do, but he’s got a laundry list of reservations holding him back. As one of the few openly gay fighters in the sport, he already faces enough ridicule. Plus, there’s the matter of what it would do to his mother Yocasta (Perla de la Rosa). While she’s endlessly supportive of her son, there’s a chance she resents him for driving his father out of their lives. She’s never discouraged him from embracing his sexuality — but embracing it in the ring, in drag, in front of thousands of people? It may be too much for her to bear.

For better or worse, Cassandro knows what audiences are there to see, and the film wastes no time in charting the rise of Saúl’s newfound persona. His new coach, pro luchadora Sabrina (A League of Their Own’s Roberta Colindrez), is one of the first to say what’s on everyone’s mind: if Saúl craves poetry and entertainment, he may as well test the waters as an exótico. He doesn’t have to lose if he doesn’t want to. And Saúl, for all his reservations, eventually agrees. He lifts his new moniker from the telenovela Kassandra, repurposes one of his mother’s dresses, and goes to work.

García Bernal captures Saúl’s unique tempest of emotions, fears, and doubts like no one else can.

When he first steps into the ring as Cassandro, in drag for the first time, the crowd, on instinct, boos. He's paired with Gigantico again — more or less destined to lose once more — but he won’t go down without winning the audience to his side. Cassandro accepts their jeers and slurs as if they were roses and kisses. He uses Gigantico’s strength, and his fragile masculinity, against him. He's able to wield his sexuality in a way he never could as El Topo, to taunt his opponents with it — and stay in the fight long enough to earn a genuine fan. His exploits quickly catch the eye of Lorenzo (Joaquin Cosio), a promoter with the clout and cash to make Cassandro a real star. He may have lost his first match as an exótico, but he’ll never be down again.

As far as typical sports biopics go, Cassandro is a breath of fresh air. The film is at its greatest when its titular luchador is in the ring. Ross Williams and cinematographer Matías Penachino capture each match with an unflinching, painterly precision. But Cassandro doesn’t shy away from softness either, or from fragility — and so much of that is reinforced in its lead performance. García Bernal captures Saúl’s unique tempest of emotions, fears, and doubts like no one else can. It's a career-best for an actor who’s a consistently exhilarating presence on screen, and his performance is a fine distraction from the shortcomings in the script.

Saúl’s rise to fame, however miraculous or meteoric, passes in the blink of an eye. Despite the myriad of hurdles he has to confront in his personal life, his journey is almost void of tension outside of the ring. The easy, breezy pace of the film stutters with the introduction of threads — and characters — that don’t quite live up to their hype. Between Saúl’s conflicts with his mother; with the father that abandoned him; his married, closeted lover (Raul Castillo) and all his newfound fame — one could be forgiven for waiting for the other shoe to drop.

At the same time, it’s great to see an openly gay character shake off the suffering that’s so common in these stories, to fight for the life he deserves. Maybe it’s enough that Ross Williams keeps the drama in the ring, if only to celebrate Saúl’s life outside of it.

Cassandro premiered January 20 at Sundance.

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