Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal) grew up watching the Mexican wrestlers known as luchadores on TV with the father who treated him and his mother as a second, illegitimate family. Small in stature as an adult, Saúl endures in the ring as El Topo, but soon tires of performing the same old, losing routine against foes like Gigántico. Then he meets female wrestler Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez, TV's 'Vida') who is taken aback by his strength and tells the gay man he should embrace his real identity and fight as an exótico. At first Saúl rejects the idea because the drag wrestlers are set up to lose, but when he embraces it, he comes on strong, even forgoing the traditional mask as the character of “Cassandro.”
Laura's Review: B+
Cowriter (with producer David Teague)/director Roger Ross Williams ("The Apollo") knew nothing about Lucha Libre when he made 'The Man Without a Mask’ for Prime's New Yorker series, but was so impressed by his subject, making a feature film about Cassandro became his priority. He’s chosen the perfect star in Bernal, who projects all the personal and professional hurt absorbed by the man yet performs in the ring with the flamboyant flourishes and technical proficiency that made Cassandro a star. (Having always thought of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna as Mexico’s Matt and Ben, it is amusing to see Bernal play the ‘Liberace of Lucha Libre’ after Damon’s portrayal of Liberace’s lover in “Behind the Candelabra.”)
Saúl is very close to the mother, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), he lives with in Ciudad Juárez while sharing the tailoring and laundry load they eke out a living from with wealthy clients in El Paso. It is his mom who approaches Gerardo (Raúl Castillo, "We the Animals"), the typically macho wrestler Saúl’s exchanged glances with, to make an introduction when he spots him in a restaurant booth with his wife and kids. The two men will engage in a lengthy affair.
With Sabrina as his coach, Cassandro makes his first appearance in the ring, cheekily using his sexual identity to his advantage. His new persona captures a crowd used to jeering at exóticos, although Gigántico eventually gets the win if little applause. Saúl also gets the attention of Lorenzo (Joaquín Cosío, "Savages"), who becomes his booker and agent, assigning Felipe (Bad Bunny) to take care of his needs. As Saúl suffers one heartbreak after another in his personal life, Cassandro’s career soars, eventually landing a bout with the legendary El Hijo del Santo (playing himself), whose famous dad, El Santo, he used to watch as a child. It will be this traditional luchadore who will help heal Saúl’s soul when he invites him on his TV talk show and Cassandro learns from young, gay audience members what he has meant to them.
Bernal gives a moving yet highly entertaining performance. Well cast support shouldn’t be overlooked though. You will believe he and De La Rosa are loving mother and son and Jorge Andrés Zerecero and Sofía Felix portray their beautifully matched younger versions in flashbacks (Ronald Gonzales-Trujillo, and later Robert Salas play dad, Eduardo). Also excellent are Colindrez as Saúl’s professional support person who becomes a fast friend and Castillo as the conflicted lover, another layer of duality, a man living two lives. Cosío is amusing as the outwardly shady promoter who actually has Saúl’s best interests at heart, although Bad Bunny’s character is more ambiguous.
Roger Ross Williams, making his first fiction feature (he was the first black director to win an Oscar, for his 2010 documentary short ‘Music for Prudence’), evokes feeling staging personal scenes where director of photography Matías Penachino uses close-ups for intimacy and landscape for emotional tone, and excitement in the ring, where Penachino keeps us abreast of every move. Composer Marcelo Zarvos ("Fences") keeps his score fluid, favoring horns suggesting jazz, tradition and even the military. “Cassandro” may not break any boundaries as a biopic, but its subject sure did in real life and Bernal gives the role his heart and soul.
Robin's Review: B+
Saul Armendariz (Gael Garcia Bernal) regularly crosses the border to Juarez to take part in the lucha libre wrestling matches as El Topo. Then, he meets a new trainer, Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) and she convinces him to embrace the idea to compete as an exotico and life is changed for the man who becomes “Cassandro.”
I only had the briefest of moments to look into the story of lucha wrestler Cassandro but it peeked my curiosity to see this film. What I did not expect is the sheer energy and inventiveness that went into telling Saul Armendariz’s inspirational rags-to-riches story of success and fame.
When we first meet Saul, as El Topo, he is just eking out a career in the ring south of the border. Sabrina changes everything for Saul when she recommends he become an exotico wrestler. The only problem in a macho society is that a gay character, even in the ring, will lose. Saul is inspired, especially when he goes through his mom’s old wardrobe, and creates his new persona – Cassandro.
When Saul’s new alter ego enters the ring, he plays up the gay character and, though he is booed by the crowd, his antics – very funny – win them over. Soon, he has a following and the attention of wrestling promoter Lorenzo (Joaquin Cosio) who sees Saul’s vision for Cassandro.
Of course, a gay wrestler who wins in the ring is unheard of, but he eventually gets a grudging go-ahead from a promoter. The result is the near meteoric rise of Cassandro in the world of lucha libre to the top of the heap and a match with the reigning star, which is the film’s climax.
I was impressed by Gael Garcia Bernal as the title character. I watched the wrestling action closely and I was hard pressed to see where the actor was replaced by a stunt double – not often it looked to me.
I think about genre films and where each lands in its genre’s pantheon of works. There are some, though not a lot, of good wrestling movies over the years. One of my personal favorites is Robert Aldrich’s 1981 “…All the Marbles” with Peter Falk. “Cassandro” is now on my list of favorite wrestling films with its star, its vibrant energy and enormous amount of fun.
Amazon Prime Video releases "Cassandro" in select theaters on 9/15/23. It begins streaming on Prime on 9/22/23.