In sentiment and glitz, “Cassandro” (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video) is a show, a spectacle of its leading man’s acting prowess. For Gael Garcia Bernal is evocatively earnest in portraying Saul Armendariz’s journey to become the queer lucha libre icon ‘Cassandro.’ Bernal switches between the poignancy of Saul and the extravagance of Cassandro, with an equal measure of twinkles in his eyes. This performance has to rank as one of his career best. And that is saying something, knowing the full range of work the virtuoso Mexican actor did.

The world of lucha libre is vibrant and as escapist as it comes. Every fight in lucha libre has a story in itself. The traditional good versus evil story sometimes ends in the triumph of the good guys (‘Technicos’ in lucha libre jargon). It sometimes ends in the ill-deserved victory of the villains (‘Rudos’). The pro-wrestling fans would recognize these as ‘faces’ and ‘heels.’ In the world of lucha libre, there is another set of actors. The ‘Exoticos,’ male fighters (luchadors) dressed in drag with overtly feminine gestures and behavior, are there to provide entertainment through ridicule. The Exoticos provide a light-hearted break from the ultra machismo of the fights while subjecting themselves to taunts from the largely homophobic crowd.

When Saul observes one such Exotico in action, he sees what none of the audience members could see—a beautiful and boundless depiction of freedom. Director Roger Ross Williams crafted this scene beautifully with one single pan shot, where Saul and the audience see the maskless Exotico getting beaten by the masked ‘heroic’ luchador. While the audience laughs at seeing the Exotico losing the match, Saul smiles, appreciating the exuberant freedom that the Exotico fighter reverberated.

Thus begins the journey of Saul Armendariz. The journey that is going to be a subversion of the machismo of lucha libre. Through his doting and supporting mother’s flamboyant clothes, ‘Cassandro’ is born. Saul rejects his previous masked and mustachioed persona for the unmasked celebration of his true self. His new trainer, Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) inspires him to embrace the Exotico personality. Cassandro’s first appearance encourages Saul to change outside of the ring as well. Cassandro has absolutely nothing to hide. Saul has a lot.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté
Gael García Bernal and Perla De La Rosa in Cassandro (2023)

The script by Roger Ross Williams and David Teague focuses on Saul’s metamorphosis into Cassandro. The difference between Saul and Cassandro is nuanced. An almost blurry line makes Cassandro uninhibited, while Saul remains worried and tense. It’s the difference between dream and reality. Ross Williams and Teague dedicate the script to the process of reshaping Saul’s reality with Cassandro’s dream.

Director Roger Ross Williams makes his narrative debut with “Cassandro.” Ross Williams has previously directed documentaries, with his short “Music by Prudence” earning him an Academy Award in 2009. His keen observational eye makes him the perfect director to create the metamorphosis Saul goes through inside the ring. A documentarian documents via their camera, reluctant to cut the scene. This reluctance is a gift in Ross William’s direction. Ross Williams lets the camera roll for just the right amount of extra seconds, allowing us to be regaled by the magic he creates along with cinematographer Matias Penachino.

The action pieces are beautifully pensive, with Marcelo Zarvos’ music ranging from the chirpy exuberance of the lucha libre world to Saul’s solemn reality. Gael Garcia Bernal has crafted magic, no doubt. However, it would be a disservice to the entire cast if they were not mentioned. It is indeed a stupendous ensemble performance. De La Rosa is heart-achingly good as Saul’s mother. She loves Saul as much as she pines for her lover, Saul’s father.

Although some of the darker sides of the real Saul Armendariz’s struggle are not shown (like Saul Armendariz’s suicide attempt), “Cassandro” focuses on the quiet reality of Saul and how Cassandro finds something inside Saul that he was unaware of. The reality is always harsh, like the audience members of a lucha libre fight. Loved ones die, and loved ones can distance themselves from you. Moreover, loved ones can be brutally cruel to you for your reality. So when Saul allows a little bit of Cassandro in his reality, he finds the strength to embrace all of these. As Cassandro did to a crowd member who yelled ‘Faggot,’ Saul can now carry on with a smile on his face. In fact, all of us could do with the chance to find our inner ‘Cassandro.’

Read More: 20 Important Queer Movies Of The 20th Century

Cassandro (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
The Cast of Cassandro (2023) Movie: Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Perla De La Rosa, Joaquín Cosío, Raúl Castillo, El Hijo del Santo, Bad Bunny
Cassandro (2023) Movie Genre: Drama/Biography, Runtime: 1h 47m
Where to watch Cassandro

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