A still from Cassandro by Roger Ross Williams, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Cassandro Review – An Ode to Embracing One’s Authentic Self

Award-winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams’ narrative feature debut Cassandro is an ode to embracing one’s authentic self. Based on the life of Saúl Armendáriz an American-born Mexican luchador (wrestler) whose openly gay persona as an exótico (a Lucha Libre role where wrestlers crossed-dressed and always lost to their macho competition) not only challenged homophobia in the wrestling world but gave Saúl the opportunity to experience gay joy and pass that joy on to a traditionally conservative audience.

Beginning in the late 1980s Saúl (Gabriel García Bernal) is competing in amateur tournaments across the border from El Paso in Ciudad Juarez. These tournaments are not fancy affairs, in fact one is run out of Ray’s Auto Shop. Saúl competes as ‘El Topo’ (The Mouse) who is a ‘runt’ set up to lose against stronger wrestlers. In a match with Gigantico (an actual lucha libre wrestler) he bemoans the lack of poetry in the movements. He knows that he will always lose these kinds of matches because he is considerably smaller than his opponent and tradition says the runt never wins.

Saúl lives with his mother Yolanda (Perla de la Rosa) who works as a maid and mends clothing. She is slut-shamed by other domestics for having carried on a long affair with Saúl’s married father, Eduardo. The relationship between mother and son is both loving but also damaged because Yolanda at times cites Saúl for coming out as gay at fifteen as the reason Eduardo stopped visiting them. Despite this, and her obsession with Eduardo which sees her watching him from afar as he plays baseball, she adores Saúl, and he adores her.

Saúl’s exhibits a fierce determination and belief in the art of Lucha Libre that transcends any physical deficits he has. He is lean, yet athletic, and nimble. In Saúl’s physicality and introspection mixed with playfulness, Bernal is the perfect choice to play him. In his day-to-day life he works a menial job and carries on a clandestine affair with his married lover, fellow luchador, Gerardo (Raúl Castillo) who wrestles as El Commando. Saúl is mirroring his mother’s choice to be the disposable lover on the side.

Saúl’s new trainer is a luchadora named Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) who is impressed with his somewhat surprising skill as an athlete. She agrees to take him on, but after seeing how he is stuck as the runt, she suggests he become an exótico which Saúl initially baulks at because like the runts, exóticos lose. However, once he makes the decision to embrace the exótico persona Cassandro dressing originally in re-hashed versions of his mother’s old clothes (she favoured flashy animal prints and budget glitz) Saúl realises that he can openly express his gayness and flaunt it. The crowds who once booed him and called him slurs come to find his frank and cheeky sexuality entertaining and realise that he is adding to the spectacle of the sport. Over time Cassandro wins over the macho crowd that are conditioned to see him as a loser.

For Saúl, Cassandro is another, bigger, version of him. When he is with Gerado he suggests that perhaps Cassandro is even a top. Whomever Cassandro is, he is a revelation for Saúl who feels an elated freedom in his matches that flows through to his personal world. He is spotted by a promoter (or gangster, or drug dealer, or whatever is going to make money) and eventually he begins touring Mexico as Cassandro, the exótico who actually wins.

Roger Ross Williams and co-writer David Teague’s script hits familiar beats for an underdog biography. There is an element of cliché to the film that is hard to shake. However, what is undeniable is just how important Armendáriz was to the sport/spectacle of Lucha Libre, and what a trailblazer he was (and remains) for the gay community. The sheer exuberance of the film and Bernal’s dazzling performance overcome the rote aspects of the script, and in conjunction with Matias Penachino cinematography and the high camp of the music cues, Cassandro favours shining a mirror-ball of light on its subject even when darker aspects (such as death, alienation, drug use) appear.

Saúl takes a seemingly impossible dream and makes it a reality. Homophobia in sport remains an issue; in a country like Mexico footballers and wrestlers are symbols of heteronormative masculinity and are worshipped as idols. That an openly gay man could challenge the status quo and find a fan base that accepted him during the 1990s is a near miracle, but it is one that Armendáriz performed. When Saúl yells on the dancefloor “Lucha Libre! I am free!” he is crying out his own liberation, his fight without rules, his unmasking.

For audiences who feel alienated by their lack of knowledge about Luca Libre, the film fills you in very quickly with what you need to know. Any passable biopic will give the viewer enough information to comprehend the world of the subject. What Cassandro does to its great benefit is also give the audience enough information about what Luca Libre means to the Mexican people. It is spectacle, it is often fixed (like American wrestling with ‘faces’ and ‘heels’ in Lucha Libre there are ‘técnicos’ and ‘rudos’ who fulfil the same good vs. evil narrative), but it is still a demanding sport that requires strength and athleticism. It is capital E entertainment.

Bernal, an incredibly talented actor who can take on anything from comedy, dance, to weighty drama, uses all his accumulated skills to embody both Saúl and Cassandro. Although arguably a little too old to be playing Saúl in his late teens and early 20s (the blonde dye can’t quite cover the grey hair) Bernal’s zest for the role triumphs over any quibbles about reality. Williams isn’t making a film that is always true, but what he is doing is capturing the spirit of an icon and shining a light on him for the world to see and appreciate. Allow Cassandro to be what it is – a film about defining yourself, embracing yourself, and through the most unlikely means, leading a community into acceptance.

Director: Roger Ross Williams

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Bad Bunny, Raúl Castillo

Writers: David Teague, Roger Ross Williams

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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