2023, R, 107 min. Directed by Roger Ross Williams. Starring Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Perla de la Rosa, Raúl Castillo, Joaquín Cosío, Bad Bunny, El Hijo del Santo, Yavor Vesselinov, Robert Salas.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Sept. 15, 2023
“Get yourself a gimmick/ And you too can be a star.” That’s the showbiz advice a trio of bump-and-grind ecdysiasts give the shy Louise in the timeless American musical comedy Gypsy. Before you know it, the timid ingenue has classily transformed herself into a world-famous burlesque headliner known as Gypsy Rose Lee, who sensuously disrobes before packed audiences one evening glove at a time. The somewhat sanitized biographical drama Cassandro follows a similar narrative of transformation, although here the stage gimmick adopted by its trailblazing protagonist in the macho arena of Mexican lucha libre wrestling is more personal, one inextricably tied to his queer identity. Like Louise, he’s a butterfly in the spotlight, finally spreading his wings.
In the late Eighties, small-statured amateur wrestler Saúl Armendáriz (an agreeably charismatic Bernal) lives in El Paso with his single mother (De la Rosa) and moonlights as a masked performer named El Topo in small-time barrio matches across the border in Ciudad Juárez. Barely making an impression in the ring (he’s literally half the size of his opponents), the quietly ambitious young man dreams of the day he becomes a successful luchador wealthy enough to purchase a beautiful home for the devoted woman who raised him alone. The openly gay Saúl decides to take the advice of his new trainer (Colindrez) and work as a maskless exótico, a male wrestler who theatrically performs in drag but traditionally loses the bout, as the way to jump-start his career. In due time – and in surprisingly low-key Hollywood fashion – a fabulous new lipsticked star by the name of Cassandro is born.
First-time narrative feature film director Williams is no stranger to his simpatico title character, having previously directed the 2016 documentary short about Armendáriz, “The Man Without a Mask.” (Williams’ nonfiction work has earned him an Oscar for Documentary Short and another nomination for Documentary Feature.) This familiarity breeds empathy in Cassandro, one that’s without judgment even when the character’s behavior borders on self-destructiveness just short of drama-queen territory. Williams and David Teague’s screenplay omits much of the trauma that marked the wrestler’s life, choosing to more subtly accentuate the positive and downplay the negative in a welcome antidote to toxic machismo showmanship. While the film doesn’t wear its sexual and gender politics on its sleeve, it’s rich in queerness nonetheless. Saúl’s decision to not hide behind a mask but rather show himself – all of himself – to the rowdy crowd as he camps around the ring in a showy singlet and full makeup, even as some shout homophobic epithets, is as out as you can be. If there was ever a role model for brave but savvy self-acceptance, it’s the still living Saúl Armendáriz. ¡Viva Cassandro!