Gael García Bernal rises in “Cassandro” as a gay Lucha Libre star

Professional wrestling has always had a homoerotic subtext, and in Mexico (where the “sport” is known as “lucha libre”) it was right on the surface thanks to Exóticos: wrestlers in drag who serve as queer signal foils for feats of pure wrestlers. Known for their extravagance and glamour, Exóticos are the bold antithesis of their macho opponents.

Led by a phenomenal performance by Gael García Bernal, Cassandro is the wild and entertaining story of one such individual, and the groundbreaking path he paved by refusing to hide who he was – or accept his second-rate status both in and out of the ring.

The feature film debut of Roger Ross Williams, the first black filmmaker to win an Academy Award (for the 2010 documentary). Music by Prudence), Cassandro is a showcase for its headliner, whose role as the real title character – whose real name is Saúl Armendáriz – is a feat of open, vibrant and defiant expression.

Bernal has always been an accomplished lead actor with the spirit of a character actor, and his latest role offers him the part he’s been waiting for, allowing him to showcase the breadth of his ferocity, charm and sensitivity. As a famous Exótico, Bernal never takes a wrong step and is a charismatic force of nature. Its appeal is such that it elevates Williams’ drama above its clunkier, cliche elements.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival Cassandro begins with its protagonist – his hair blond on top, his body fit but barely ripped – arrives at an auto repair shop, where he dons a face mask like his fellow wrestlers and, nicknamed El Topo (i.e. the mouse), is all in one before scheduled loss to a Goliath named Gigantico (played by one of the film’s many legitimate luchadores). For Saúl it is an unrewarded role that seems to promise a future of followers’ inescapable anonymity, and is therefore far less appealing to him than the Exóticos that later take center stage.

Adorned in flashy makeup and cloaked in glitzy costumes, the Exóticos’ unabashed flashiness is a bright light in this dingy, testosterone-heavy environment. In a beautifully subtle shot that follows Saul’s gaze towards such an actor, underlined with the romantic horns of Marcelo Zarvos’ score, they capture Saúl’s attention while suggesting a possible way out of his impasse.

This moment proves to be a revelation for Saúl, motivating him to seek out the respected trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), who goes under the alias “Lady Anarquía” and who accepts Saúl and his daring idea: to embody a new Exótico named Cassandro, who will become bucking tradition by going maskless and, more impressively, winning.

In an arena where exotics are expected to turn their heads for opponents and suffer the biased slingshots and darts of the crowd, Saúl intends to spit fabulously in the eye of an establishment that doesn’t approve of change. In doing so, he strives to be his authentic self, which is complicated by his strained relationship with two men who cannot accept homosexuality and share a similar pattern of betrayal, betrayal, and abandonment.

The first of them is Saúl’s father, Eduardo (Robert Salas), who was married and had a family when he began his love affair with Saúl’s mother, Yocasta (Perla de la Rosa). But to recover from his rejection, Yocasta usually drags her son to a baseball field where she can mourn the loss of her former love. A brash working-class woman with a penchant for leopard-print dresses, Yocasta is more of a best friend than a mother to Saúl, and she’s certainly his inspiration (along with telenovela actresses) for Cassandro’s bold flair.

Sadly, however, Saúl has also followed in his mother’s footsteps when it comes to his love life, after becoming embroiled in an affair with another luchador named Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), who has a wife and children and only agrees to see Saúl blank Dressing rooms and through the back door of his house when his clan isn’t around.


Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for Prime Video

Cassandro is such an instant sensation that he catches the eye of criminal promoter Lorenzo (Narcos: Mexico Joaquín Cosío), who puts him on the fast track to stardom, while his subordinate Felipe (Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny) provides him with all the cocaine he needs. Cassandro’s rise is rapid, if not without complications, while Yocasta resents the danger her son is courting with his decidedly proud lifestyle, and Gerardo – with whom he shares fiery chemistry – balks at his mistress’ refusal to settle in to hide shadows.

Cassandro navigates this dynamic with aplomb, showering empathy on most of his characters while attuning himself to Saúl’s unashamed audacity, which is displayed full-bodied when he acts as Cassandro, his eyes shining with effusive, mocking impudence and his movements as playful as possible are they are strong.

Bernal exudes a fireball personality as Cassandro, but the key to his mastery is the simultaneously cheeky and hurt soul he brings to Saul. There is no cunning in Bernal’s performance, just a triumphant mixture of daring, love and need. It’s so spectacular that it’s relatively easy to miss Cassandros turn to creaky Sundance-level convention, epitomized here by a painful tragedy, a TV talk show appearance in which a young boy thanks Saúl for inspiring him to come out as gay (just a accepting father), and a final confrontation between Saúl and his own MIA Paterfamilias.

That Bernal sells as much of this cheesy material as he does is a testament to his balanced, graceful work, and he allows the film to roll past its speed bumps on its way to a feel-good climax where Saúl gets his shot of the Grosse takes time in Mexico City against luchador legend Son of Santo.

Opposite strong turns from Colindrez, de la Rosa and the consistently excellent Castillo, infusions from Bernal Cassandro with the tenderness and determination his story demands, turning the proceedings into a touching portrait of changing the world by knowing his heart and staying true to it.

Cassandro may not be as famous in the US as Hulk Hogan and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but his shortcomings notwithstanding, Williams’ film makes a compelling case that he deserves consideration by presenting a groundbreaking vision of queer power and Independence fosters a wrestling legend.

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