In Roger Ross Williams’s Cassandro, the story about real-life icon Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal) begs the question of what it means to “make it.” Following his rise from amateur wrestler in El Paso to international stardom, the film challenges expectations with a script from Williams and David Teague that takes a different approach to the standard sports biopic – and that has something to do with the film’s central figure. Instead of the pursuit of gold and glory, Armendáriz’s greatest goal is a spot in the ring, being allowed a fighting chance to be seen and noticed. In capturing that ideal the film finds itself on a stronger footing. A story about a true underdog, Cassandro doesn’t always live up to its stars (either of them) magnetism, but it refuses to coast on the rules left for it.
Openly gay, Armendáriz was always put in specific boxes while fighting at an amateur level before his promise was seen and he began to approach the sport his way. Set during his rise in the late 80s and early 90s, the world of Lucha Libre was dominated by a certain level of machismo. While there was your standard, uber-masculine figure as the hero of any given round, the antagonist would be the hyper-feminine “exotico,” a male wrestler who gave themselves exaggerated makeup and put upon feminine voices. They were made to be the spectacle, the silly spectacle not to be taken seriously. Armendáriz changes this with his character Cassandro, the “Liberace of Lucha Libre.”
The integrity of the picture is born from how the heart and focus are less on the sport itself – though there’s certainly no lack of admiration for this type of theatrics – and more on how through it he’s able to discover and champion his authentic self. While his profile rises, his relationship with the married with children Gerardo (Raúl Castillo) is pulled taut as he can enjoy a sense of liberation in being out due to the fame that follows him while Gerardo must remain closested.
Castillo and Bernal share a tender chemistry that shines in moments of intimacy, both possessing the kind of expressive faces that wear their pain openly, no matter the many shields they try to form. At one point, frustrated with himself and Saul’s disinterest in his ability to upset the status quo, Gerardo explains that before his star shone brighter, “everything had a place.”
This is part of what makes Cassandro such a fascinating flick and what makes the maskless man cut such an imposing figure. Because from what we are so often taught in popular studies in history – queer history in particular – he doesn’t fit. Our media or, at least, Hollywood and other studies haven’t often made room for someone of his stature and someone who fits his narrative. In so many mainstream films, queer history has a set start time, a set look, and set rules of what it means to be queer within the lines of the story in question, and Cassandro both the man and the film refuse to adhere to those.
Unfortunately, some of the more interesting story beats and the narrative structure fail to transfer into how the film was shot. It could’ve used a grander vision. One shot of Cassandro applying makeup alone backstage stands out as one of the few times the film allows visual language to tell the story. Similarly, some aspects aren’t given enough weight. Instances of casual homophobia (the type bigots think are “just jokes) spoken behind Saúl’s back by those around him who are happy enough to bask in the success he carries with him but doesn’t want to be associated with him regarding his sexuality land with weight, stories involving his relationship with his conservative father fair worse.
Having come out at 15 years old to his father whose religious beliefs tore them apart, Saúl has been an out and proud man for too long to allow these societal leeches any air but still, as a viewer, it’s the flippancy of the comments that make them so cruel. But there’s simply not enough time put into that dynamic, especially with the film so (rightly) centered on the influence his mother (Perla de la Rosa) had on his life.
Unsurprisingly, Bernal is superb, channeling an infectious pantomime energy as Cassandro mid-fight. Possessed with tremendous talent and a face made for film with his blinding, Cheshire grin, inquisitive eyes, and chameleon-like ability to shift and change into whatever character is on the call sheet next, Bernal’s magnetism is boundless. As the film’s ringleader, he displays an impish grace that recalls the work of Buster Keaton, especially when he stands poised and playful on his stage, short in stature he may be but mighty, and displaying fierce physicality.
The film finds its highest highs because of Bernal, though he isn’t the driving force of its success. While it wears itself thin in the ending sequences that amount to one too many, the charm of the lead performer and the engaging story at the heart of it alleviates any fatigue. Curious and empathetic, the film does right by its inspiration.
Featured Image Courtesy of Sundance Institute
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Cassandro - 7/10