From Mexico, Cassandro is a fresh, unusual and highly entertaining film about the rarefied world of exotic Mexican wrestlers called “exoticos,” flamboyant fellows who entertain masses of fans by adding an extra dimension to their work in the ring—a dress, lipstick, wigs—inspiring insults and building a network of followers who shout enthusiastically from the bleachers. It’s a film that rises above all the obvious cliches because of the colorful naturalism of heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal’s likable appeal. Even with his black hair badly dyed blond, he gives the film such a solid center you can’t take your eyes off him. Fortunately, you couldn’t even if you wanted to. He’s a welcome centerpiece in almost every scene.
CASSANDRO ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Lucha Libre is the name of the sport, where good triumphs symbolically over evil. The wrestlers are called luchadors (luchos for short). Saul (Bernal) is a gay wrestler in Juarez, across the border from El Paso, who wants to be a star and tour the world as a lucho with the stage name “Cassandro.” He’s closely bound to his tough, tattooed, chain-smoking mother, who makes his costumes and encourages his career, and in love with a married, unattainable man who offers him no encouragement for a happy, productive future.
It’s a juicy role, and playing against type, Bernal tackles it with panache. From his violence in the ring to his tender love scenes, he works every aspect of the character honestly and sincerely. The big break comes when he makes it to Mexico City, and in a bout watched by 22,000 people, where he fights a legendary lucho called the Son of Santo. The interesting thing about the movie, directed with flair and energy by Roger Ross Williams, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Teague, is not only what it teaches us about the sport, which is apparently a phenomenon in Mexico second in popularity to bullfighting, but also the depth with which the title character is explored. He becomes a symbol of pride and success to a younger generation but not to himself. When he finally becomes the celebrity he always wanted to be, Saul finds it’s lonely at the top without someone to love.
Nothing new in any of it, but the tenderness of his performance stretches Bernal’s talents to the point of heartbreak, and his fearless and startling determination to “let it all hang out” results in a challenging star performance that is a thrill to watch and a privilege to applaud.