Documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams turns his hand to biopic in underdog sports film Cassandro. Based on the real-life story of gay luchador Saúl Armendáriz (portrayed by an outstanding Gael García Bernal), the film follows his rise in popularity as an “exótico” (a term for a luchador who fights in drag), paving the way for queer wrestlers. Though this isn’t the first time Armerndáriz’s story has been told on the big screen, with documentary Cassandro, The Exótico exploring the star’s long career, Williams’ telling of his story is imbued with a fiery spirit that’s as intoxicating as Cassandro’s stage presence.
Living with his incredibly mother (Perla De La Rosa) in El Passo, Armerndáriz begins his career in the late ‘80s wrestling in an auto shop under the name El Toppo. Everything changes, however, when he befriends trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez). She’s the one who suggests that he becomes an exótico, and with some tweaks to his mother’s outfits as sublime, western-flavoured trumpets colour the soundscape, he’s ready to step in the ring under his new persona.
In the ring, Bernal’s charismatic stage presence and showmanship are infectious, ensuring that viewers will be cheering along for Cassandro alongside the crowd. But it’s when he’s out of the glamorous attire where the actor is at his best. Outside the ring, Saúl is a different person who wishes that they could be as confident as his alter ego. He even tells his lover that Cassandro would do things differently in the bedroom. Although the script doesn’t explore the relationship between Saúl and Cassandro much further, the star’s captivating performance allows for an insight into the man behind the persona.
Running parallel to Cassandro’s underdog rise to fame, the flick also deals with aspects of the luchador’s personal life alongside homophobia faced along the way. After the halfway point, however, the pacing begins to lose its focus, resulting in these components never quite coming together in a satisfying manner. Part of the problem is that the script doesn’t dive deep enough into the themes that it touches upon, The worst offender being a subplot surrounding Saúl’s complicated relationship with his religious father which culminates in a rushed and unfulfilling conclusion.
Despite its fantastic leading performance from Bernal, Cassandro is unfortunately let down by a scatterbrained script which can’t bring its ideas together.
Cassandro is released in select cinemas on 15th September 2023 and on Amazon Prime Video on 22nd September 2023.
Watch the trailer for Cassandro here: