Gael Garcia Bernal Gives The Gay Lucha Libre Icon His Due
Mar 11, 2023
PARK CITY – If someone were to tell you an out-and-proud wrestler in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s Lucha libra scene became not only a title holder but a public sensation you might not believe it. A gay wrestler? In “macho” Mexico, no less? Even in the U.S., the first WWE publicly gay wrestler didn’t arrive on the scene until 2012. But “Cassandro,” the subject of the new drama that debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival tonight, was that and so much more. And in telling his remarkable story, director Roger Ross Williams has drop-kicked the shackles of a conventional biopic filmmaking in an intoxicating fashion.
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Williams, a Doc Short Oscar-winner who was also nominated for“Life, Animated,” first met Cassandro, better known as Saúl Armendáriz, in 2016 when shooting “The Man Without A Mask,” a documentary short for The New Yorker on Prime Video. Armendáriz had broken major barriers in Lucha libre, but his story was fairly unknown in the rest of North America. Williams thought that needed to change and he decided then and there to make it his first non-documentary feature.
The movie begins in 1987 and our hero, Armendáriz (Gael Garcia Bernal, fantastic), is struggling as a semi-professional wrestler in the local Jurez, Mexico Lucha libre scene. Cast as a rudo (known as a “heel” or villain in U.S. wrestling), Armendáriz continues to lose to the promoter’s chosen champion, Giganto. After every match, a disappointed Armendáriz crosses the border to El Paso where he lives a much different life with his beloved mother Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa, more please).
Despite being born in Mexico, the pair reside in Texas, surviving financially by doing rich people’s laundry and washing cars. Yocasta loves her son unconditionally hoping he meets a boy who will treat him better than what she’s endured. Armendáriz’s estranged father? Not so much.
Armendáriz dreams are first and foremost Lucha libre. Not only does it bring him joy, but he sees it as a means to give his mother a better life. But that won’t happen if he continues as a rudo. After asking the successful female wrestler Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) to train him, she has an unexpected proposition for him. Why not embrace his true identity and become an exotico? And, moreover, why not become an exotico that actually wins matches?
Historically, an exotico was a Lucha libre wrestler who wore overtly feminine makeup and outlandish costumes. Basically, they were giving Liberace but in spandex. But in the history of the sport, an exotico had never won a match let alone reached the heights of a popular champion. That, of course, was before Cassandro arrived on the scene.
After convincing a local promoter to let Cassandro take on Gitantico, Armendáriz and Sabrina attempt to turn the tables in the ring. The crowd becomes transfixed by Cassandro’s charismatic flair and improved skills. They flip their support rooting for him despite Gigantico officially winning the match. The promotor sees a star in the making and Cassandro’s career begins to take off, but at a cost.
Before becoming Cassandro, Armendáriz was seemingly just another straight fighter in Juarez. But that’s also where he met another El Paso wrestler, Gerardo (Raul Castillo, great considering the screen time), with whom he has a secret romantic relationship. Gerardo has a wife and two kids and is obsessed with keeping their meetings on the down low. That becomes impossible once Cassandro arrives. Armendáriz’s new identity has now removed a mask he’s worn in public for years. He’s more emboldened to be himself than ever before. Gerardo can’t risk that.
As we’ve noted previously, there is nothing that can replace a queer eye when it comes to capturing intimacy between LGBTQ+ characters on screen. Both the straight-identifying Garcia Bernal and Castillo have played gay characters before, but the publicly out Williams’ brings a deft and personal touch in capturing their complicated relationship. Even with so many gay relationships in modern media, their moments alone in bed together have a tenderness you rarely see..
Often, documentary filmmakers tend to lean toward the conventional with their narrative debuts. They aren’t going to rock the boat on their first non-fiction go around. Exhilaratingly, Williams does no such thing. Sure, there are life story beats that are impossible to ignore, but Williams always finds a way to bring an artful touch to the proceedings. For instance, a typical biopic would flood Cassandra’s wrestling matches with a bombastic score or a recognizable music track. After the appropriate walking into the arena music (with some pitch-perfect cues, mind you) Williams trusts Garcia Bernal and the match to tell the story. He knows the match is a story and that the crowd will react, cheer or boo and never in an unrealistic manner. You hear the kicks. You hear the rustle. It’s almost revolutionary (or at least it feels like it).
“Cassandro” isn’t here to cover every moment of Armendáriz’s life. And there are storylines, especially with his father, that neither Williams or his co-screenwriter, David Teague, can bring to a satisfying conclusion. But as a portrait of a man finding himself in his profession? Of celebrating his true self? It’s extraordinary. [A-]
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