The Amazon Studios biographical drama directed by Roger Ross Williams brings to the screen the story of Saúl Armendáriz, the Mexican luchador who worked as an exótico all over the world under the ring name Cassandro. Roger Ross Williams’ narrative directorial debut is set in the Eighties, when Armendáriz lived in El Paso and would regularly cross the border to Ciudad Juárez to participate in wrestling matches.
Cassandro portrays the titular character with utmost sensitivity, also thanks to Gael García Bernal’s exceptional performance and the considerate script, written by Ross Williams and David Teague. The versatile actor — who has become known for his performances in films such as Bad Education, The Motorcycle Diaries, Amores perros, Y tu mamá también, Babel — displays physical grace and emotional torment as he plays not only a man but a feeling. The sensation he projects on screen is the inescapable power of judgement confronting the urge to embrace the true self.
The film, that had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and is streaming on Prime Video, unveils the figure of a male wrestler who appropriates feminine aspects and moves on the ring as a dancer would: the exótico. Cassandro celebrates the way machismo is contested within the Latin culture of lucha libre, through a young man who is seen as the Liberace of freestyle wrestling. The gentle boldness of this fighter, is further enhanced by the fact that while the other luchadores wear masks, the exótico keeps his face uncovered, except for lipstick, eyeshadow, mascara and glitter.
We are shown the strength and frailty of a man whose pillar of life is represented first by his mother Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa) and later by his friend and trainer Sabrina/Lady Anarchía (Roberta Colindrez). He finds strength in the women who surround him and inspire him, such as Mother Theresa, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Marie Curie and Princess Diana. His interaction with men is more conflictual, because neither his father nor his lovers provide an actual demonstration of acceptance. Being gay, and showing it off flamboyantly within such a masculine sport is seen as shameful by many. The only man who sees the potential in Saúl is the “mover and shaker” Lorenzo (Joaquín Cosío), who works as wrestling manager.
The contrast between the ultra-masculine fighters and the wrestler-in-drag is substantial, as we see the characters of Eduardo (Robert Salas), Diablo (Eduardo Cayetano), El Mysterioso (Leonardo Alonso), Murder Clown (Gigántico), Masked Massacre (Javier Escobar), as well as Felipe (Bad Bunny) and Gerardo/El Comandante (Raúl Castillo). Amongst the wrestling characters, Cassandro also features El Hijo del Santo — the famous Mexican luchador enmascarado — playing himself.
Roger Ross Williams, whose Music by Prudence won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Film in 2009, also in Cassandro uses the power of acoustics to heighten the storytelling. The music selection provides campy energy with songs such as Yo Vivré performed by Celia Cruz, Blondie’s Call Me and Baccara’s Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, that enliven the pantomime fights.
Cassandro, besides being a delicate biopic, serves as a universal tale about overcoming adversity and strife as an outsider finds his voice and place in the sun.
Final Grade: B