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Sundance Film Festival Review: Gael García Bernal Gives an Inspirational Performance as Libre Wrestler Saúl Armendáriz in Affectionate Biopic Cassandro

Courageously shifting into the next professional and personal stages of their lives can offer a liberating freedom for creatives who are eager to attain satisfying fulfillment. That’s certainly the case with filmmaker Roger Ross Williams and Mexican lucha libre wrestler Saúl Armendáriz, who performs under the ring name Cassandro. Williams, who’s an Oscar-winning documentarian, made his feature film directorial debut on, and also co-wrote the script with David Teague for, the new narrative sports biopic, Cassandro.

Throughout the movie, the helmer respectfully chronicles the professional and personal struggles and successes of Armendáriz, the first openly gay lucha libre wrestler, who won over fans of the notoriously homophobic sport. Williams, who previously profiled Armendáriz in 2016 for the Amazon series, The New Yorker Presents, effortlessly transition into narrative features with the emotionally gripping biopic. The socially vital feature offers an exhilarating exploration of fearless queer identity in a masculine environment.

Cassandro follows the the El Paso, Texas-born Saúl (Gael García Bernal) as he’s struggling to provide for himself and his mother, Yocasta (Perla de la Rosa). He regularly crosses into Mexico to work in the border town of Ciudad Juárez, where he participates in lucha libre wrestling matches.

However, there are many obstacles standing in Saúl’s way of garnering success in his life. That includes his mother not being completely supportive of his career, as she’s concerned that he’ll get hurt during one his matches. She also blames her son for his father’s departure from their lives.

Saúl has been comfortable in his sexuality since he came out to his parents when he was 15, even though it caused a rift in his relationship with his religious father, Eduardo (Robert Salas). Their estrangement deeply troubled and confused the wrestler, especially since his father had maintained an affair with Yocasta when Saúl was a child, despite the fact that he was married.

Saúl also doesn’t show any concern about publicly flaunting his sexuality during his matches, even though he’s practices a homophobic sport in a conservative Catholic society. His openess about being gay also causes a constant rift between him and his boyfriend, fellow luchador Gerardo (Raúl Castillo). The two are romantically involved with each other in an affair, even though Gerardo is married and has children.

While Saúl is upset that Gerardo isn’t ready to divorce his wife and embark in an open relationship with him, and is also still contending with his estrangement from his father, he’s determined to advance his career. Due to his smaller physical stature, he wrestles as El Topo, and he’s frustrated by the expectation that he’ll lose each fight.

So Saúl becomes inspired to begin working with a new trainer, Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), who’s known on the lucha circuit as Lady Anarquía. She suggests that if he wants to change his image and begin winning, he should instead compete as an exótico, or drag wrestler.

Saúl readily agrees, and decides to take inspiration from Mexican actress Verónica Castro, as well as from his mother’s taste for heavy makeup and flashy animal-print outfits, to create Cassandro. While his new persona isn’t initially well-received, through hard work and determination, he eventually captures the crowd’s attention and affection.

However, Cassandro’s ascent soon begins to affect Saúl’s relationship with his mother and Gerardo. As a result, he’s left to question how he can balance success and happiness in both his career and personal relationships.

Williams and Teague’s script offers an alluring glimpse into the specialized world of lucha libre wrestling, which combines the physicality and emotional range of both sport and theatrical spectacle. The drama’s story explores how the titular Cassandro became a subversive force in changing the rules of lucha libre wrestling that says the effeminate exótico always has to lose to the more macho man.

The film’s screenwriters rightfully choose not to explore Saúl’s entire life, particularly in his struggle to become a wrestler, up until he won his first fight as Cassandro, just so the story could end on a cheerful, happy note.

Instead, Cassandro’s script proves how he’s an emotionally powerful wrestler who relies on his morals to help boost his physical strenth to become a revolutionary figure in both lucha libre wrestling and queer athletic empowerment. Even after he starts winning matches, he’s still forced to conend with the challenges of maintaining a happy balance in his relationships with Gerardo and Yocasta with his career, as they begin to question how they fit into his new successful life.

Bernal’s dual performance as Saúl and his stage presence in the ring as Cassandro in the biopic is a powerful, respectul and affectionate tribute to the real-life wrestler. The actor humanizes Saúl’s emotional and physical struggles as he fights for respect and admiration from not only his opponents in the ring, the promoters and the fans of lucha libre wrestling, but also his parents and Gerardo.

Cassandro is also driven by instant credibility in its costume and make-up designs by María Estela Fernández and Itzel Pena, respectively. Williams found succes in his collaboration with them both, as they decided against infusing camp into Bernal’s costumes and make-up as Saúl. As a result, the story instead focuses on his groundbreaking triumphs in securing rights for the gay community, especially in the world of lucha libre wrestling.

Throughout Cassandro, Williams crafted an engaging origin story for an outsider turned unlikely superstar. The riveting story he crafted with Teague offers a stunning inspection into the physical and emotional transformation one of the most notable and groundbreaking figures in lucha libre wrestling.

The complex, rivining original story the scribes crafted for the movie allowed Bernal the opportunity to truly embody the two distinct sides of the eponymous character – the more reserved Saúl, who’s desperately seeking true acceptance from the people he loves, with Cassandro’s boisterous ring persona, who embraces and revels in his differences amongst lucha libre fans.

Grade: A-

Cassandro had its premiere on January 20 in the Premieres section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The biopic is scheduled to be released by Amazon Studios via Prime Video later this year.

Check out more of Karen Benardello’s articles.


Karen Benardello
Karen Benardellohttps://cinemadailyus.com
As a life-long fan of films and television shows, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic in 2008. Karen has since been working in the press in New York City, including interviewing film and television casts and crews, writing movie and television news articles and reviewing films and televisions series. Some of her highlights include attending such local events as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and New York Comic-Con, as well as traveling across North America to attend such festivals as the Sundance Film Festival, SXSW and the Toronto International Film Festival. She has been a member of the Women Film Critics Circle since 2012, and the New York Film Critics Online since 2019.


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