In the world of professional wrestling, there is a suspension of belief that one must have in order to believe what they are witnessing. The outfits, the pageantry, the moves, and the attitude of what is considered by many to be a machismo entertainment field lean heavily into the influences of gay culture and the longing to be desired by all who are watching. There is a campy nature to the world of wrestling, where going over the top rope is just as important as winning over the crowd with your over the top persona. In the case of Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal), aka Cassandro, he blended these worlds to allow an exótico lucha libre (male wrestlers who appropriate feminine aspects in their wrestling personas) to do something that had never been done before in Mexican wrestling. By doing this, he became a living legend, but the road to get there wasn’t so easy, as examined in Roger Ross Williams’s sports biopic.
When we first find Saúl, he’s living in Juaréz, Mexico in a small house with his mother (Perla De La Rosa). During the day, he details cars for customers, earning a simple living. But at night, he transforms into the characters he saw on TV with his estranged father, and grows obsessed with the idea of becoming a professional lucha libre. In small clubs across the border, he is fighting against wrestlers three times his size, losing every match and barely making any money. His in-ring name is “El Topo” and due to his natural look and taste for theatrics, many correctly assume Saúl’s sexuality as homosexual. With this, he is mocked both by his opponents and the crowd at large. But he ignores their boos and homophobic chants and fights with his heart, even though he knows it will end with him tapping out and walking away the loser. He isn’t even mad at the fact that people treat him distasteful, just as long as he gets his chance to show what he can do in the ring.
In a move to try and legitimize his placement in the wrestling world, Saúl turns to Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), a famous female wrestler to train him. By doing so, he becomes stronger with his craft in the ring, in a traditional yet somber take on the training montages we find in other sports films. This training allows him to become more confident in the ring, and thus finds his new persona, ‘Cassandro,’ loosely based on the title of a telenovela he likes to watch in his spare time. But a whole new persona isn’t the only thing that he brings to the ring, because in order to separate himself from all the other wrestlers, he decides not to wear a mask. The mask is something to define the mystique of the lucha libre in the ring, a significant part of the character they are playing. But Saúl isn’t like everyone else and isn’t afraid to hide who he is in the ring. By doing this, he is free of the mask he is hiding both in the ring and in his life and this bravery is seen by the fans as he wins them over by the end of his first match at Cassandro. In receiving this fame, he’s discovered by promoters, who see a talent unlike anyone who has been in the ring before. This new spirit found in Saúl elevates him to a place where is able to fight the biggest match of his career, against El Hijo del Santo. But again, winning and losing doesn’t matter to him, as getting there and the roar of a crowd thrives him to become the best.
Cassandro lives within a winning formula of the underdog story, and the feature debut from Oscar-winning documentarian writer-director Roger Ross Williams and his co-writer David Teague understand that fully. Therefore, because Saúl is a larger than life figure with an important, complex story to tell, you can’t help but relate to his struggles, even if you aren’t a fan of wrestling. As we see him rise up the ranks, we see struggles within his relationship with his mother, who is worried that her son’s popularity will bring attention to his sexuality and that people might hurt him. He calms her worries by assuring her that he can take care of himself, but he is all she has considering his father was never in the picture because he had another family. Close within their bond lives a tender mother-son dynamic where the judgments of traditional Mexican values are stripped away and a son sees the warmth within his mother’s heart.
At the same time, Saúl is involved in an affair with another wrestler, Gerardo (Raúl Castillo). In these interactions, he is looking for not only the praise of a fellow wrestler but the love he has so longed for from another man. We know this won’t end with a fairytale ending for Saúl, but he gets small glimpses of happiness to fill the void in his heart that is full of love. When he is rejected by Gerado, it triggers memories of his father discarding him and his mother, leaving him momentarily numb before realizing he can control his own narrative, and his work in the ring is enough to keep him going. Bernal’s vulnerability in these scenes elevates his performance beyond anything we’ve seen in stories like this before, as it’s an honest portrayal of someone needing to find purpose in themselves in order to keep on fighting.
Playing both the man in and out of the ring, Bernal commands the screen with a dual performance for the ages. As Raúl, he is quiet, innocent, searching for a way to make his passion a reality, breaking through as an openly gay wrestler. In Mexican/Latino culture, members of the LBGTQ+ community are in a constant battle to live proudly as who they are because of the built in religious structure found within the traditional Mexican values. In order to rise out of the generational ideal system, you have to be someone special who is able to not be afraid of the opinion of those who think less of you and show that who you are can be accepted by anyone. With this idea, Bernal’s other performance as Cassandro clicks in so well because when he is in the ring, he has the crowd against him from the get go. But when he starts to entertain them, making them laugh in-between impressive moves, they forget he is a gay performer and look at him as just a wrestler, chanting his name even though he is not the main attraction. In these moments in the ring (expertly brought to life by William’s direction), Bernal’s energy beams like a light coming from the sky, and beyond his physicality, his vulnerability shines as the legendary lucha libre.
Being an inspiration, Cassandro’s legacy goes beyond the ring, as a young man tells him how Cassandro showing his comfort in the ring gave him the courage to come out to his family. This moving moment is a testament to the power of showing stories like Saúls so that we can see the potential for change in corners of the world where those chances are slim. With this, Cassandro slowly morphs from a standard biopic into an essential look at an unsung hero who defined all the odds in front of them, and with that, it is an absolute crowd-pleasing winner.
Cassandro is screening in the Premieres section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It will be released theatrically by Amazon Studios.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute