Mexican wrestling is a fascinating sport. It’s all about the spectacle of violence and in many ways, it’s much more violent than the WWE matches, or maybe it’s just much more flamboyant. The wrestlers, known as luchadores, invent big personalities with signature moves and adoring fans.
Then there’s the exóticos. They’re luchadores who perform or compete in drag. They’re much more flamboyant, visibly queer and they always lose their fights.
At least, until Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal) changed that. Saúl was a passionate, if mostly unsuccessful, luchador who reinvented his ring persona as Cassandro, the exótico who could win. Working together with his trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), Cassandro would go on to change the entire sport.
Director Roger Ross Williams isn’t a complete stranger to Saúl’s story. He directed a short documentary on Cassandro, titled The Man Without a Mask, for The New Yorker in 2016, but clearly, the story stuck with him enough to make it into a feature length, fictional film. The trailer promised us a feel-good sports film with an important message.
Cassandro delivers exactly that; a traditional yet pretty inspirational Hollywood biopic. We witness Saúl’s humble beginnings and his close relationship with his mother (Perla De La Rosa). Saúl is initially hesitant to become an exótico; he doesn’t just want to fight, he wants to win, and exóticos, remember, never win. Seeing the potential and talent in Saúl, Sabrina asks: why not?
Williams doesn’t dare to stray from the path of the glossy Hollywood sports film, and Cassandro never becomes as extraordinary as its subject. Whereas the real Cassandro was bold, colourful and fearless, Cassandro the film is visually drab and plays everything quite safe.
While Williams certainly excels in finding moments of silence with Saúl, often just before he steps into the ring or enters an arena, Cassandro never finds its focus or nails down a balance between the gritty drama of being a gay in the homophobic, machismo world of wrestling and the feel-good movie it clearly wants to be.
Cassandro is arguably at its best when it does focus on the juxtaposition of said machismo and Cassandro’s hilariously flamboyant ring personality. It’s in these moments that both Cassandro and Williams are at their most comfortable and confident.
But what really carries the film is Gael García Bernal’s performance. While the script slightly holds him back, the Mexican actor has never been this vulnerable and nuanced on screen. The actor has already proved himself as a fearless, often unpredictable performer, but Cassandro takes those qualities to the next level.
While Cassandro is, to a flaw, thematically familiar, it’s hard to deny the sheer power of a narrative about a man finding himself and becoming the person he was always destined to be. Williams navigates Cassandro’s personal journey with an unsteady hand, but ultimately, there is plenty to enjoy here and the film comes to a sweet, if slightly overwrought conclusion.
Williams’ transition from documentaries to narrative fiction isn’t quite the triumph you’d hope, but Cassandro remains an entertaining sports film, if one carried on the weight of Gael García Bernal’s performance.
Cassandro is in selected cinemas now and available on Prime Video 22 September.