‘Cassandro’ Review: Gael García Bernal’s Lovable Luchador Is The Queer Hero You Didn’t Know You Needed

For nearly a century, exoticos have been the clowns of Mexican wrestling: goofy, outlandishly dressed queer-coded characters who strutted through the ring to amuse the homophobic crowds. These old stereotypes have long been part of the lore of lucha libre, the second most popular sport in the country, after soccer. Since Mexican wrestling matches are treated as elaborate metaphors for good versus evil, the exoticos always lose to their more macho adversaries. Even Cassandro, an openly gay wrestler whose outsized personality and atypical success feel movie-ready.

Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (“Life, Animated”) not only knows this, but has special insight into its history, having profiled “The Man Without a Mask,” Saúl Armendáriz, for his 2016 short film of the same name. Name. Fueled by the dream casting of Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal as “the Liberace of wrestling,” “Cassandro” arrives with a kind of instant credibility, which Williams protects by avoiding any sign of camp, opting instead for cinematography. majestic and respectful and a melancholic trumpet score by the composer of “Fences” Marcelo Zarvos. The director downplays the instinctive spectacle of the mannered character and tells costume designer Mariestela Fernández not to go overboard with the sequins. As with the troweled mascara in “Tammy Faye’s Eyes,” being precise might actually be less believable.

To that end, Bernal is confident that the character’s trademark blonde hair (parted to the side, with a glam-rock pompadour on top) is pretty much the only indication of Saul’s homosexuality. No limp wrists or “yas bitch” repartee here, though it’s easy to imagine another filmmaker playing “Cassandro” for comedy, “Blades of Glory” style, along with whatever embarrassing, queenly impersonations it would have called for. In Williams’ hands, the laughs never come at Saul’s expense, ridiculous as this stadium may appear to the crowd. Wrestlers are artists, first and foremost, and “Cassandro” celebrates that as he takes Armendáriz’s achievements to heart.

When we first meet him, in the ring of course, Saúl is competing as “El Topo”, a rudo (the bad guys, destined to lose to the more honorable technical wrestlers). Tired of being tossed around and humiliated every night, Saúl convinces Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) to be his trainer. He wants to win for a change, and although the codes are clear, he invents a new character, Cassandro, loosely inspired by the diva of the soap opera’s title “Kassandra”. Saúl designs his own wardrobe, cutting out a leopard-print jumpsuit that belongs to his mother (Perla de la Rosa) and devising the personality to match.

Saúl still lives at home (in Juaréz, just across the border from El Paso), where his mother does her best to support him, while not-so-secretly blaming Saúl for his father’s departure ( the slacker was married to another woman, so there was never anything but disappointment waiting down that road anyway). “Cassandro,” which Williams co-wrote with documentary editor David Teague, is loaded with flashbacks to Saul’s childhood, through which audiences come to understand the many layers of shame he carries, not just because of his queer identity. impossible to suppress, but also because of being abandoned and rejected by his own father (Robert Salas).

There is much against Saul, who plays a homophobic sport in a conservative Catholic society, and yet “Cassandro” minimizes the conflict, meaning almost every time an obstacle arises, Saul overcomes it without much difficulty. For example, as soon as Saul reveals Cassandro, Sabrina tells the emcee that this new exotic intends to win. And so he does. “Don’t fuck with our traditions,” an opponent complains, but as soon as a promoter sees the crowd cheering for Cassandro (exotics are often booed), he rigs the match to go in Saul’s favor. From there, he continues to rack up victories until he is invited to compete against the legendary El Hijo del Santo (playing himself) in Mexico City.

That climactic matchup seems fake, but that’s the point, and it’s fun to watch Bernal replay body shots, spins and piledrivers. Most of Mexican wrestling is rigged anyway, in the sense that the moves are imitated and the results predetermined, meaning Cassandro’s adoption into the sport had to be approved by the people who run it. The stakes are high, considering that Cassandro changed the face of Mexican wrestling (he revealed his face, for example, and also his sexuality), and yet the conflict remains relatively low-key throughout, as if Williams believed that representing the homophobia would be to perpetuate it.

On his way to gay hero status, there are two men in Saúl’s life whom he wants to win over: first, his father, and second, a fellow wrestler Gerardo, also known as “El Comandante” (Raúl Castillo), who he is locked up and married. The scenes between the two lovers are touching, but tragic, as we sense that their passion can only be fueled in secret. The more famous Cassandro becomes, the more fearful of discovery Gerardo grows. In their relationship, the film presents its own “Brokeback Mountain”-style look at gay men in a hypermasculine arena. And in Cassandro, we see a role model for those who get especially excited by seeing sweaty men struggling in spandex.

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