THE STORY – In the lucha libre wrestling scene of Juárez, Mexico, gay luchador Saúl is tired of playing El Topo, a nondescript, masked runt who always loses his matches. He wants to be a star. His fierce new trainer, Sabrina, suggests he develop an exótico character — an unmasked, stereotypically effeminate role audiences love to hate. But exóticos never get to win. All that changes when Saúl debuts the flamboyant and powerful Cassandro, who captures the crowd’s attention and affection. But how will Cassandro’s ascent affect Saúl’s relationship with his mother — still pining away for his unavailable father — and with Gerardo, Saúl’s secret lover?
THE CAST – Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Perla De La Rosa, Joaquín Cosío & Raúl Castillo
THE TEAM – Roger Ross Williams (Director/Writer) & David Teague (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 99 Minutes
One of the most exciting aspects of independent queer cinema is the chance it allows viewers to travel around the world and see how characters navigate their sexual and gender identities in different countries and within various life experiences. “Cassandro” is the latest such entry in the queer film canon, as it delves into the true story of a gay lucha libre wrestler trying to make his way through the competitive Mexican wrestling circuit. Director Roger Ross Williams and his co-writer David Teague work together to craft a film that’s empowering and manages to miraculously subvert expectations.
Saúl spends his days working at a car wash and tending to the house he shares with his mother in El Paso, Texas. But by night, he crosses to Juárez, Mexico to be a luchador. Dissatisfied with the matches he has been getting, he’s encouraged by his new trainer to invent a new wrestling persona named Cassandro. This character is what’s known as an exótico — a stereotypically effeminate wrestler whose job is to incite the audience’s hatred and ultimately lose the match. But, as he becomes more confident in his performance as Cassandro, Saúl begins to work to expand the typical expectations of the exótico within the tradition-based world of lucha libre.
As the titular wrestler, Gael García Bernal is, as always, marvelous. He’s a master at getting viewers on his side with his ability to conjure an audience’s empathy through, among other techniques, smart physical choices. In “Cassandro,” he’s tasked with portraying the out-of-the-ring man Saúl and his fabulous alter ego Cassandro. Saúl is proudly out and never afraid to hide his true self. García Bernal is brilliantly able to distinguish the physicality and mannerisms of his character and his character-within-a-character. Saúl is uninhibited, but Cassandro is untamed. The ensemble surrounding García Bernal is equally committed to bringing their characters to life and populating the world of “Cassandro.” Roberta Colindrez is a particular standout as Saúl’s no-nonsense but caring trainer.
Most refreshingly of all, “Cassandro” isn’t a coming-out story. Saúl clearly went through this process before the film began, which saves the movie from having to go through the typical plot beats to which many queer films find themselves beholden. That doesn’t mean that the film isn’t predictable, especially as it navigates the tropes of both the sports drama and the gay biography. But, just when the audience may feel that they can write the remainder of the screenplay themselves, the film unveils some beautifully unexpected developments that subsequently make it an even more moving experience. The film is also very focused, nearly to a fault. Most of the other characters exist to further Saúl’s story rather than having any grand, completed arcs for themselves. This may make the film feel a bit shallow at times, but it ultimately comes together to help the main character’s life story feel even more impactful because of all that the audience has come to learn about him.
“Cassandro” tells a beautiful story of someone who’s already sure of himself and his place in the world while doing his very best to change people’s minds. The film is an invigorating tonic for those who may find themselves tired of the taste of cliché-ridden queer films.