Cassandro, writer/director Roger Ross Williams’ joyous celebration of the indomitable spirit of Saúl Armendáriz, is the perfect vehicle to introduce the Lucha Libre world and its groundbreaking, barrier-busting gay star to a wider audience.
The film catches up with Saúl (played by Gael García Bernal) in the 1980s when he’s wrestling as designated loser El Topo (which translates to The Mole). Saúl’s in a rut, and the only way out is to transform into an exótico. But that transformation would require him to incorporate his homosexuality into a character in front of a large audience that includes his homophobic estranged father. It would also mean he’d be forced to continue to lose since the wrestling world – both in the ring and in the stands – doesn’t embrace homosexuals. Gay wrestlers are mocked and ridiculed and subjected to disgusting sexual slurs. (It’s the ’80s and this is a very masculine sport.)
A chance encounter with trainer Sabrina aka Lucha Libre star Lady Anarquía (Roberta Colindrez) changes everything for Saúl and, ultimately, for the world of Lucha Libre. Sabrina recognizes Saúl’s talent and stokes the fire already burning inside the talented, charismatic wrestler. Under her tutelage, Saúl reimagines himself as Cassandro the exótico.
Saúl’s new Lucha Libre persona isn’t willing to just be a flamboyant foil in the ring. Through hard work, persistence, and unwavering self-confidence, Cassandro topples the established luchador hierarchy – and does it in style.
Writer/director Williams and co-writer David Teague do an incredible job of following Cassandro’s rise to fame and how in the process of taking the Lucha Libre world by storm, he became an important, influential role model for gay youth.
Cassandro’s spirited performances won over audiences, which in turn changed the attitude of match organizers/promoters. It was the radical shift by fans who went from hurling epithets to chanting his name that allowed Cassandro to win in the ring, something unheard of at the time for an exótico. And by conquering what was regarded as a homophobic sport, Cassandro helped open doors that had been nailed shut to the LGBTQ+ community.
Gael García Bernal delivers one of his career-best performances, and it’s obvious how much respect he feels for the real-life Lucha Libre superstar he’s playing. García’s particularly effective in the quieter scenes he shares with Perla de la Rosa who plays Saúl’s supportive mother, Yocasta. Saúl and Yocasta’s relationship was extraordinarily close, and de la Rosa and García have terrific chemistry as a mother and son who are each other’s best friends and close confidants. They share everything, including a home, and Yocasta’s fierce yet loving personality influenced her son’s approach to life.
Gael García Bernal and Raúl Castillo also have incredible chemistry as lovers forced to keep their relationship a secret. Castillo plays fellow luchador Gerardo (aka El Comandante), a married man who becomes involved with the free-spirited Saúl but refuses to come out of the closet. The pain Saúl feels as Cassandro’s popularity forces the two to part ways is heartbreaking and cuts deep, thanks to Garcia and Castillo’s compelling performances.
Gael García Bernal looks like a natural in the ring, and the action scenes are well-choreographed and entertaining. I’m more than a little embarrassed to admit my only knowledge of Mexican Lucha Libre wrestling prior to watching Cassandro came from 2006’s Nacho Libre. Basically, I went into Cassandro as a Lucha Libre virgin, so my take on whether the wrestling scenes looked authentic should be taken with a grain of salt. They looked realistic enough to me that I flinched in response to a few blows delivered on screen.
Writer/director Robert Ross Williams was very familiar with Saúl Armendáriz after directing the documentary The Man Without a Mask which chronicled the luchador’s remarkable career. That familiarity, and the friendship the filmmaker and subject now share, makes Williams the perfect director to honor Saúl Armendáriz’s struggle to overcome bigotry and shatter stereotypes. Williams accomplishes all that while also showcasing Saúl’s unbreakable spirit in an exceptionally entertaining film.
Cassandro had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon Studios is targeting a 2023 release on Prime Video.
Directed By: Roger Ross Williams
Written By: Roger Ross Williams and David Teague
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Perla De La Rosa, Joaquín Cosío, and Raúl Castillo. Special Appearances by El Hijo del Santo and Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio aka Bad Bunny
Running Time: 109 minutes