Gael García Bernal, the distinguished Mexican-born actor renowned for his exceptional early 2000s screen portraits in films such as Amores Perros, The Motorcycle Diaries, Y tu mamá también and Bad Education—all of which made him an internationally acclaimed movie star—triumphantly returns with his best role in years in the biopic Cassandro, embodying a groundbreaking figure in the world of Mexico’s lucha libre.
As the titular, openly gay “exótico” wrestler who skillfully constructed a star-making, flamboyant ring persona while deftly navigating backstage personal dramas, Bernal comes roaring back into movies with a performance of such physicality and emotional dexterity it ranks amongst 2023’s very best.
Picture opens against the atmospheric backdrop of late 1980s Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city situated just across the border from El Paso, the Texas home of Saúl Armendáriz (Bernal), an aspiring gay luchador—or masked wrestler—whose ambitious quest to carve out a distinguished reputation in the fiercely competitive world of Mexico’s lucha libre is complicated by his modest stature. His petite size necessitates his role as a perennial underdog (his persona is named El Topo) in the ring, conceding victory to his physically imposing adversaries, who are crowd-pleasing champions orchestrating spectacular theatrics to please the sport’s fervent fans. While each bout leaves him with meager earnings, Saúl is disheartened by his lot on the losing side of the wrestling pecking order, particularly after an early, predetermined loss to the popular Gigántico, whom he could have handily beaten.
Saúl promptly hires tough new trainer Sabrina, superbly played by the no-nonsense Roberta Colindrez, and then gets a bright, daring idea—an image change to that of an exótico wrestler named Cassandro, dressed in drag and heavy make-up (he keeps a photo of his mother backstage as a model for his glamorous look). This risky, radical reinvention results in homophobic slurs (the picture does not shy from the crowd’s abusive catcalls) before his obvious skills and immensely enjoyable ringside stagecraft earn begrudging respect. A star is born.
Beyond the wrestling arena, Saúl’s domestic life is centered around his single mother, Yocasta, a laundress, portrayed with skill by Mexican actress Perla de la Rosa, a relationship both profoundly close and marred by complexity. Abandoned by Saúl’s father (Robert Salas), who has long established a new life with an American family and disavowed his effeminate son (Yocasta reminds Saúl that she paid a price), the pair bears the painful weight of a traumatic, shared past. Their poignant moments spent in a parked car, silently observing Saúl’s long-absent father coaching a youth baseball team, reveal collective and enduring emotional scars.
In a complex screenplay written by director Roger Ross Williams and David Teague, Saúl is also given a clandestine love interest played with masculine warmth by Raul Castillo (The Inspection), a fellow luchador who is closeted and married with children. This connection, between the out Saúl and his down low lover, manifests in moments of teasing intimacy and suppressed carnal desires that explode behind closed doors.
As Saúl’s star in the world of lucha libre ascends guided by the sagacious hand of a shrewd promoter (Joaquín Cosío), an unlikely camaraderie blossoms with a benevolent, small-time drug dealer, portrayed in a brief but resonant performance by one Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio (a.k.a. Bad Bunny).
Saúl, now known by his ring name Cassandro, evolves into a figure not merely celebrated but genuinely revered within the lucha libre community (but never by his own father). This journey culminates in an epic showdown with the legendary El Hijo del Santo (himself) as he confronts his legacy in the ring with the world as his audience. Yet amid the spectacle of this colossal Mexico City match a profound question persists: can Cassandro ever attain the elusive embrace of love and acceptance?
Although Cassandro may initially present itself, as suggested by its trailers, as a vibrant and somewhat whimsical tale of a gay trailblazer navigating the traditionally machismo-drenched world of lucha libre, the film transcends these surface expectations. It delves deep into the intricacies of Saúl’s life beyond the glittering spectacle of the wrestling ring, where triumphs and setbacks intermingle with his aspirations and dreams for the future. A particularly poignant sequence finds mother and son sharing a tranquil moment, floating in a pool, contemplating the prospect of a new home Saúl plans to purchase for her. And in the film’s closing moments, an unexpected family reunion scene contains undeniable emotional impact as Bernal speaks intimately, directly to the camera.
Importantly, Cassandro also offers a compelling exploration of the influence Cassandro exerted on the sport of lucha libre and the aspirations of Mexican youth. A terrific moment finds Cassandro and rival turned friend Santo making an unexpected joint appearance on a national talk show. In this scene, Bernal’s performance bears the full weight of the moment, conveying the transformative effect of Cassandro’s achievements on the culture as well as on his sense of self-worth.
Cassandro skillfully navigates contextualizing its real-life protagonist’s profound impact on both the realm of sports and broader cultural landscape while refraining from the temptation to end on the expected triumphant wrestling match climax, choosing instead to focus intimately on its stirring central character. Such narrative restraint and avoidance of cliches gives focus to the Bernal’s tour de force performance of exceptional artistry. Clearly, the star not only undertook the formidable task of mastering the technical intricacies of the sport and its many authentic/contrived maneuvers but also delivered them with an extraordinary showmanship.
What elevates this performance to a higher echelon, particularly given the historical context in which it unfolds, is Bernal’s unwaveringly confident commitment to portraying his subject’s unapologetically out and proud identity in a heartbreaking, amusing, full-bodied portrait. Always a daring performer (witness his adventurous turn in Almodovar’s Bad Education) he is richly convincing in depicting Saúl’s decision to embrace his true self at great risk in a public period marked by the specter of the AIDS crisis and rampant homophobia. Saúl had far more to lose than to gain, yet he chose authenticity over conformity. Bernal’s sincere portrayal of this trailblazer, one of the year’s very best, deserves earnest consideration for year-end awards.
3 1/2 stars