Biopics tend to follow a fairly rote formula, often centering on famous historical figures, people with grandiose achievements or years of strife on their shoulders. Cassandro does this in a sense, but its focus is necessarily smaller—for better and for worse.
CASSANDRO ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
The movie tells the true story of Saúl Armendáriz, a gay man in the amateur Mexican Lucha Libre wrestling scene who becomes the stuff of legend when he takes on the identity of Cassandro, an exótico. Essentially, an exótico is a dragified, explicitly gay character in the world of Lucha Libre, and he’s always cast as the antagonist against another (burlier, manlier) wrestler. Though the exótico is traditionally a derided figure in the wrestling scene, Cassandro sees the rise of its title character to Lucha Libre royalty, discovering empowerment and encouraging tolerance along the way.
Gael García Bernal takes on the dual role of Saúl and Cassandro, two parts of the same man. As the former, he’s shy, a tad bit needy and a devoted mama’s boy; as the latter, he’s ostentatious, flirtatious and bold. The two identities remain distinct (Saúl occasionally invokes his double in moments of uncertainty, with mentions of “if Cassandro were here. . .”), but when they begin to bleed into each other, it makes for another kind of fascinating wrestling match altogether.
That said, Cassandro does little to explore some of its most dramatically compelling components. Saúl shares a secret relationship with fellow wrestler Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), who has a wife and kids. They get few scenes together, and the couple’s central plight is hardly examined. Meanwhile, as Saúl gains confidence while Cassandro gains popularity, characters whisper to him that other wrestlers are not happy at the exótico’s positive reception. What certainly sounds like a threat never amounts to anything, making for another apparent conflict that doesn’t play out in the movie.
The one relationship and tension that anchors the film is that shared between Saúl and his mother, Yocasta (Perla de la Rosa). Together, in a small, dusty home, their codependency gives glimpses of a different version of Grey Gardens. Saúl was born of an affair his father had with Yocasta, and much of his life has been spent alone with his mother. Both have an affinity for telenovelas, cigarettes and married men, and the way that each character needs each other tells an emotional story that feels grounded and fresh.
Director Roger Ross Williams takes a muted approach to Cassandro’s story, which works in fits and starts. The movie takes place in the ‘80s, but locations include dusty El Paso neighborhoods and crowded auto shops-turned-wrestling rings. The camera is grainy, the aspect ratio condensed into an almost square, making for a lived-in kind of feel. Occasionally, Williams intersperses wrestling matches with crowd-caught footage, adding a home video vibe to the proceedings. In the ring and during fights, there’s minimal scoring or songs, with just the chants of the crowd and the slapping of skin audible. The stripped-down strategy makes the excessive world of Lucha Libre feel realer, though it doesn’t always translate well.
It would be reductive and stereotypical to insist that a movie about a gay man must be bright, colorful and loud, but Cassandro could use some of that glitz. The wrestling scenes lack luster, with Cassandro’s intense makeup and patterned costumes failing to stand out in the ring. The film’s climactic fight is held in front of hundreds on a massive stage, but the momentous occasion looks washed out and feels oddly condensed. When contrasted with the heightened artificiality of a famous luchador’s daytime talk show later in the film, these scenes are strikingly disappointing.
Amidst this dull rendering of a genuinely great true story, García Bernal shines. The actor is nothing if not charismatic, and his lasting screen presence brings much to Cassandro—both the film and the Lucha Libre wrestler. Whether flirting with a coworker played by Bad Bunny or teaming up with trainer and fellow wrestler Lady Anarquía (an underused Roberta Colindrez), he imbues Saúl with an achingly intense emotionality. If only the movie had more of it to offer.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.