Cassandro is a movie of visual poetry, a moving and often heartbreaking love story that explores the cost and gain of being yourself in a world that wants to carefully control your narrative. Gritty and raw, unflinching in its honesty, this movie respectfully tells a story of a queer wrestling icon.
We learn early on in the film that exóticos, like Cassandro, don’t win – and when we meet Saúl Armendáriz, neither does he. Exóticos are an archetype of wrestler who are flamboyant, often performing in drag and commonly used for homophobic laughs so it’s understandable as to why Saúl, though openly gay, would be hesitant to take on such a persona. But Saúl (played with grounded sincerity by Gael García Bernal), is often cast as the runt and forced to lose to luchadores larger than himself. He’s even wrestling under the name of El Topo – the mole. He is indeed treated as his namesake as we watch him lose to a typical machismo luchador. Saúl is less upset about the loss, lamenting instead that this luchador doesn’t fight with ‘poetry’ in the ring – and it’s that yearning for something more that underscores a movie about a superstar finding his voice in and outside of the ring.
Because Saúl knows he’s meant to be more than the runt, he seeks out trainer Sabrina (well-played by Roberta Colindrez). She not only agrees to train him but becomes his friend, encouraging him to embrace an exótico persona – and so Cassandro is born.
For those unfamiliar, Cassandro is known as the Liberace of Lucha Libre. He took an archetype meant to belittle queerness and gave it strength. Perhaps most remarkable, he was able to do so while embracing his authentic self. While the movie takes dramatic liberties in the telling of his story, much of it is pulled from his life – including the heart-wrenching loneliness of reaching the top and the undeniable way he became a gay pioneer for the sport.
As the film unfolds, we quickly learn of the personal risk Saúl embraces to become an exótico – though he’s close with his mother, Yocasta (brilliantly played by Perla de la Rosa), his father shunned Saúl as a teenager, after he told him he was gay. His current boyfriend, Gerardo (a wonderful performance by Raúl Castillo), is also a luchador – who happens to be married with kids. And then there’s the general risk of being openly queer in a world that is known to be so machismo – especially since exóticos were traditionally seen as jokes in the ring, not true contenders. But though the crowd hurls slurs at Cassandro as he debuts, he gets them on his side by embracing his flamboyance – and by wrestling with skill and poetry.
Though the story is rooted in Saúl’s personal drama regarding his family life, his boyfriend Gerard (who is bent on keeping their relationship secret) and the inevitable complexities that follow a rise to fame, this movie doesn’t shy away from wrestling. In fact, in many ways, it’s a love story to the sport, particularly to lucha libre. Every wrestling match in the movie is entertaining and visually stunning. These matches are brilliantly choreographed and well-placed, propelling the story forward with as much drama and gusto as any professional show.
It is beautifully directed by Roger Ross Williams, who balances the story of a violent sport with moments of softness. Williams co-wrote the script along with David Teague, the duo crafting a stunning script that plays with structure, allowing time and memory to exist alongside unflinching reality.
Teague and Williams don’t sugarcoat the complexity of being an openly gay superstar. There is a cost to being your authentic self in a world that’s so openly hostile – but there is gain, too. Though the losses may appear to outnumber the wins, the triumph ultimately shines through.
Note: This article’s graphics have been updated, replacing posters from the 2018 documentary Cassandro, the Exotico!
Cassandro is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.
|Directed By:||Roger Ross Williams|
|Written By:||David Teague and Roger Ross Williams|
|Cast:||Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Perla De La Rosa, Joaquín Cosio, Raúl Castillo|
|Runtime:||1 hour 47 minutes|
Slam Wrestling's Hollywood Headlock Rating Scale:
1: Unsafe Worker (Avoid!)
2: Pre-Show Performer
3: Mid-Card Material
4: Main Eventer
5: World Title Winner