Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 21st, 2023
Cassandro (Roger Ross Williams, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1970, Mexican American Saúl Armendáriz long dreamed of becoming a “luchador,” or professional wrestler, on the Mexican “lucha libre” circuit. Openly gay from his teenage years, he embraced the persona of an “exotico,” or drag wrestler, named Cassandro, breaking down barriers by becoming more than just a sideshow, rising to be an actual champion. In his fiction-feature debut, esteemed documentarian Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda) tells the story of this pioneer with all the pathos and flamboyance he deserves.
Gael García Bernal (Ema) stars in the title role, and though he may over 20 years older than was Armendáriz when he embraced his new persona, he carries the role with his usual sensitivity. The son of a single mother, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), who had a fling with a deeply conservative married man, Saúl grows up longing for the approval of the man who rejected him when he came out as gay. That’s just one of the central through lines of the movie, but by no means the only one.
Mother and son struggle to make ends meet, though they dream big. Unfortunately, Saúl’s early forays into wrestling, as a skinny competitor named El Topo, don’t go all that well, especially since he is frequently paired with a huge brute named Gigantico, who predictably kicks him around the ring. But then one day he gets an idea, watching a flashy exotico, to change his act.
Thanks to a new coach, Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez, Ms. White Light), he prepares for a fresh start, and though the spectators initially boo Cassandro, his natural charm and quick, darting moves (courtesy of Sabrina) help win people over. Soon, these heavily choreographed matches start to favor his new character, and a savvy promoter sends him out on tour, culminating in a packed arena in Mexico City. Cassandro, it seems, has made it.
He still has to connect with his father, Eduardo (Robert Salas), however, especially given an earlier tragedy in the narrative. Fortunately, the movie offers its protagonist a way out from denying his true nature. He is Cassandro, and needs no one’s approval to be his true self. It’s the best conclusion we could hope for.
Despite the many positive qualities, and a fine supporting cast that includes Raúl Castillo (We the Animals), Joaquín Cosio (The Suicide Squad), and rapper Bad Bunny, there are at times strange moments of emotional distance, where the mise-en-scène falters, or relies excessively on music to sell a particular beat. These sequences fall flat, but are not overly distracting. The ultimate takeaway is one of joy and triumph. Cassandro is a winner.