Opening in theaters on September 15th before premiering on Prime Video September 22nd, ‘Cassandro’ introduces mainstream American audiences (at least those who may not have seen 2019 documentary ‘Cassandro, the Exótico!’) to a boundary-pushing Mexican wrestler.
Gael García Bernal plays the main man in affecting and well-rounded fashion, though the movie itself never quite channels the flair of subject Saúl Armendáriz.
What’s the story of ‘Cassandro’?
When Saúl Armendáriz (Bernal) starts competing in the macho world of Mexican Lucha Libre wrestling, he’s always cast as the runt.
After he meets Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), Saúl gains not only a professional trainer but also a friend who helps him create a new character in the ring. Together they debut ‘Cassandro,’ a radical subversion of Lucha Libre’s stereotypical role known as the Exótico.
Flamboyant and powerful, Cassandro turns Lucha on its head. But Cassandro also upends Saúl’s own life, throwing into tumult his relationships with his mother Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), his secret lover Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), and his absent father Eduardo (Robert Salas).
Who else is in ‘Cassandro’?
Does ‘Cassandro’ win in the ring?
Co-written (with David Teague) and directed by Roger Ross Williams, ‘Cassandro’ takes an understated approach to the world of someone who never was, at least in the ring. Armendáriz’ story is one of struggle and triumph, ego and self-destruction, pride and hope. And, yes, while it has previously been chronicled by the 2019 documentary, that doesn’t detract from the appeal of the movie.
With a nuanced, emotional and typically great central performance by Bernal, the movie is anchored by his portrayal of the man, who suffered rejection from his father and had to hide who he truly was from most of the people around him.
Aside, that is from his doting mother Yocasta, (Perla De La Rosa, proving to be every bit the match for her onscreen son) with whom the young Armendáriz has spent most of his life. Their relationship is one of the highlights of the movie, wreathed with sadness but also joy at their close bond.
When Saul starts to develop the persona that will change the macho world of Lucha Libre, you see him come alive in a way he’s never been able to before. Williams chronicles it all with a steady eye and calm perspective, letting the story unspool in slow-burn style.
There are familiar beats to be found for sure, but Armendáriz’ story is a fascinating one. And refreshingly, the script doesn’t shy away from the fact that despite his game changing impact on his sport, Armendáriz’ fame doesn’t automatically translate into full acceptance in his private life, as his main relationship has to be kept a secret.
This gives the film some extra power and significance, and makes it stand out from others of the genre –– be they sports or other biopics (and it’s for good reason, since we are suddenly, pleasingly inundated with stories about Latino people achieving long-held dreams that offer different takes on the culture). It’s something worth celebrating.
Where does ‘Cassandro’ fall down?
Not everything about the movie works as well as its central performance(s).
The slow, focused approached to Armendáriz’ life works well when it is showing him struggling to find acceptance, working menial jobs or facing barriers in his personal life, but it sticks around for the wrestling scenes, and that only sporadically succeeds.
Cassandro as a character is wild and spontaneous, and the matches might have benefitted from a little more flair to keep up with him. There are fleeting moments where his skill as a wrestler translates (and Bernal clearly threw himself into training to be convincing), but it’s never quite as entertaining as the man himself.
Also, for a story about such a unique real-world character also hits a few of the standard points that you’d expect in a sports biopic such as this, though those are thankfully kept to a minimum.
There will, of course, be concerns about a straight actor such as Bernal playing a gay icon, but he quickly puts aside such worries with his sympathetic portrayal. Outside of that, his affair with a closeted fellow luchador is rarely quite as authentic.
Yet perhaps the biggest issue with the role is not one of sexuality, but of age. While Bernal at 44 does convincingly channel the much younger Armendáriz during his early days (he debuted as a wrestler in his pre-Cassandro era) at the age of 18, and the movie stars there.
It can be distracting at times to see Bernal playing the role, and it might have worked to have someone else play him as a teen (as Williams obviously does when he’s shown as a young boy), so as not to make you wonder why someone of at least 30 is in such a situation.
‘Cassandro’ is certainly an underdog story worth telling, even if the dramatic film that has resulted isn’t always able to properly contain it. But it looks at his life with an unflinching gaze and, when it lets him be himself, and as in Lucha itself, it shines.
‘Cassandro’ receives 7.5 out of 10 stars.
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