February 8, 2023

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‘Cassandro’ review: Gael Garcia Bernal is a lovable luchador

4 min read

For nearly a century, exoticos have been the clowns of Mexican wrestling: silly, queer-coded characters in strange drag who pranced about the ring to entertain homophobic crowds. All these confounding stereotypes have long been part of the tradition of lucha libre – the country’s second most popular sport after football. Because Mexican wrestling matches are treated like an elaborate allegory of good vs. evil, the outsiders always lose to their more macho opponents. Until Cassandro, an openly gay fighter whose outsized personality and extraordinary success feels film-ready.

Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (“Life, Animated”) not only knows this, but has special insight into his story, having profiled Saul Armendariz in “The Man Without a Mask,” for his 2016 short film of the same name. Buoyed by the dream casting of Mexican star Gael García Bernal as a “lucha libre libres,” “Cassandro” carries a kind of instant credibility, which Williams defends by eschewing any trace of camp, opting instead for designated, respectable cinematography and a “fences.” Wistful Horn score from composer Marcelo Zervos. The director understated the character’s inherent showmanship by instructing costume designer Mariestela Fernández not to overdo it with sequins. Like the troweled-on mascara in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” being right can actually be less convincing.

To that end, Bernal believes that the character’s signature blonde hairstyle (parted on the side, topped with a glam-rock pompadour) is practically the only giveaway of Saul’s homosexuality. There’s no lusty wrists or “Yas Beach” repartee, though it’s easy to imagine another filmmaker playing “Cassandro” for comedy, a la “Blades of Glory,” with some cringe-y, queeny impersonation called for. In Williams’ hands, the laughs never come at Saul’s expense, ironic as this premise might seem to the audience. Lucadores are entertainers, first and foremost, and celebrate “Cassandro” while taking Armendariz’s accomplishments seriously.

When we first meet him — in the ring, of course — Saul is competing as “El Topo,” a rudo (bad guy, to lose to more respectable tecnico wrestlers). Tired of being dumped and humiliated every night, Saul convinces Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) to be his trainer. He wants to win for a change, and while the codes are clear, he creates a new character, Cassandro, inspired by the telenovela title diva “Cassandra”. Saul designs his own dress, cutting out a leopard-print to match his mother’s (Perla de la Rosa) and personality.

Saul still lives at home (in Juarez, just across the border from El Paso), where his mother does her best to support him, though not secretly blaming Saul for his father’s departure (the deadbeat was married to another woman, so rather than waiting on that road anyway). was nothing more than a disappointment). “Cassandro,” which Williams co-wrote with documentary editor David Teague, features flashbacks to Saul’s childhood, allowing the audience to understand the many layers of shame he carries — not just for his impossible-to-repress queer identity, but also for his own father ( Robert Salas) to be abandoned and rejected.

Much is made against Saul, who practices a homosexual sport in a conservative Catholic society, and yet, “Cassandro” plays down the conflict — which is to say, whenever an obstacle comes, Saul overcomes it without much difficulty. For example, Sabrina wants the ring-master to win this new exotico as soon as Saul exposes Cassandro. And so he did. “Don’t mess with our traditions,” grumbles one challenger, but whenever a promoter sees the crowd cheering for Cassandro (exoticos are usually booed), he forces the match to go to Saul. From there, he continues to win until he is invited to Mexico City to compete against the legendary El Hijo del Santo (who plays himself).

That climactic showdown looks fake, but that’s kind of the point, and Bernal’s body slams, spins and piledrivers are fun to watch. Most of Mexican wrestling is rigged anyway — in the sense that the moves are faked and the results are predetermined — which means that Cassandro should have just embraced the sport by those who run it. Considering Cassandro changed the face of Mexican wrestling (he revealed his face, for one, and also his sexuality), and yet the feud remains relatively low-key, as if Williams believed the homophobia portrayed would perpetuate it.

On his way to gay hero-hood, Saul has two men in his life whom he wants to conquer: first, his father, and second, a fellow wrestler, Gerardo, aka “El Comandante” (Raul Castillo), who is closeted and has scenes between the two lovers. Touching, but sad, as we realize that their emotions can only be fed in secret. The more famous Cassandro becomes, the more Gerardo fears being discovered. As for their relationship, the movie presents its own “Brokeback Mountain”-esque look at gay men in a hyper-masculine setting. And in Cassandro, we see a role model for those who get a special thrill from seeing sweaty men in spandex.

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