In a world of cartoonish overacting, over-the-top theatrics and outright silliness, you’d think it would be tough to be too flamboyant.
But in the world of professional wrestling, Cassandro finds this to be true. But it also shows that even where toxic masculinity rules, there is room for positive change. (The film begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime Video.)
Cassandro tells the true story of Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal), a young wrestler in Mexico who finds himself cast as an exótico named El Topo, a villainous performer who dresses in drag. A slight, mousy young man, Saúl hopes to be a heroic masked luchador but has a tough time standing out among hulking brutes and can’t quite match up to the high-flying gymnasts that can thrill the crowd.
But in El Topo’s exótico guise, Saúl finds success. Flamboyant at best and homophobic at worst, exóticos are traditionally villains, playing to the basest fears of the mostly male audience — that another man wants to have his way with you. They prance around the ring and, while doing many of the same wrestling moves as their brethren, mix in a little sexual innuendo from time to time.
Saúl, a gay man, endures the nightly catcalls, slurs and threats shouted at him. But his dream is to make a new character named Cassandro — an exótico that is cheered. The promoters are more than a little skeptical, the other wrestlers are outraged (“I don’t lose to exóticos,” one wrestler says derisively) and the fans aren’t particularly interested in the idea either.
Once Saúl finds success as Cassandro, he quickly moves up the ladder and lands increasingly high-profile matches. But backstage, jealousy holds Saúl back, as grumblings emerge that he’s having too much success too soon.
Where director / co-writer Roger Ross Williams finds the most success is in the effect the character of Cassandro had on the sport and Saúl’s insistence on being more than a caricature. Although Saúl turned his character into a babyface (a beloved hero) — against the wishes of promoters who believed an exótico can only be an evil villain — Cassandro’s magnetism and showmanship were evident.
The conflict comes when this duality of Saúl’s life follows him beyond the ring. He has a romantic relationship with a fellow wrestler but from the shadows. His mother accepts him, but his father (who Saúl looks up to the way fans come to look up to him) does not. Wrestling itself has competing narratives — fake fighting as performance art and real competition occurring between combatants. Wrestlers are supposed to be rough but not too rough.
Bernal is the film’s centerpiece, and rightly so. His Saúl is all starry eyes, with a passion for the business and a need to be more than his modest El Paso upbringing. He wears his naivete on his sleeve, and Bernal brings a sense of wounded wonder to the character.
As Cassandro, Bernal doesn’t fare quite as well. The action itself is pretty good for a wrestling movie, lacking the overly theatrical, cartoonish antics you see in most films. The wrestling here is more realistic, if you will. But while Bernal (and his stunt person, presumably) executes the moves, they lack the speed and crispness a real professional would display. Williams clearly respects the art of wrestling but doesn’t always nail the physicality. The character’s subtext aside, wrestling fans just would not accept and come to love a wrestler who moves as slowly as we see Cassandro move. It’s a valiant effort even if it doesn’t always stick the landing.
Williams also doesn’t nail the historical accuracy part, either. While we get the gist — that Saúl is a trailblazer who overcame adversity and perpetual insults to become a gay icon, the “Liberace of Lucha Libre” — we miss some of the important real details that certainly could have been cinematically meaningful.
The real-life Saúl, for example, was trained by Rey Mysterio, whose nephew would go on to international and very American stardom; if you’ve been to the toy section of any department store in the past two decades, you’ve seen Rey Mysterio’s action figures and signature lucha mask). While the elder Mysterio is a character in the movie (under a different name), his role is minimized, relatively speaking.
Also glossed over (ignored completely, to be honest) was Saúl’s 1991 suicide attempt amid backlash from his continuing success. And we are shielded from much of the vitriol from Saúl’s peers in an industry where performers are notoriously, sometimes violently jealous of each other. It feels like we could get to know Saúl just a little better than we were able to here.
Instead, Williams leans on tried-and-true tropes, toned down and even sanitized to a degree, in a way that’s a little puzzling at times. Cassandro is certainly moving and engaging but doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have. It’s a strong biopic, as well as an entertaining and respectful film, that had the potential to be maybe a little bit more.