Cassandro is a captivating portrait of an LGBTQ athlete persevering in an homophobic, oppressive industry (and culture). Unfortunately, it’s also sus as hell.
The story of Saul Armendariz (Gael Garcia Bernal), a famed Mexican luchador who broke down many a barrier in the lucha libre wrestling circuit, is a fascinating one. However, documentarian Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda, Life, Animated) uses his narrative feature-film debut to create a biopic that’s just as much an artificial spectacle as the wrestling persona that made Armendariz a star.
A few years ago, Williams did a documentary short for The New Yorker (a video companion piece to a 2014 profile) about Armendariz, who brought some much-needed pizazz to Mexican wrestling as an exotico (read: drag wrestler) who refused to play the silly-sissy role. Williams follows this flamboyant, El Paso-based fighter over the border, where he competes in matches in Juarez and gives major face each and every time.
Just like the short, Cassandro lays out how Armendariz went from struggling wrestler to the queen of slamming and slaying. Bernal, who is 44 and somehow still as baby-faced as when he was a horny-ass youngin’ 23 years ago in Y Tu Mama Tambien, plays Armendariz as an ambitious, often frustrated artiste, a creative purist looking to create stunning, sophisticated work every time he does a suplex. Whenever he slips into the tights as Cassandro, usually coming to the ring to some gay club anthem, he puts on one frisky, cheeky show.
Williams also delves deep into Armendariz’s relationship with his ailing mother (Perla De La Rosa). As both characters act more like loyal BFFs than mother and son (they share cigarettes and clothing), Cassandro often feels like a love story between the two. But their relationship appears to be the most authentic thing in this movie. If the New Yorker article (as well as the 2018 documentary Cassandro, The Exotico!, which isn’t directed by Williams) is correct, Williams and co-writer David Teague went hella overboard with the creative liberties, throwing in a few alternative facts while also leaving out several traumatic events.
In real life, Armendariz started his wrestling career playing a masked, villainous gladiator. (The character was created by Mexican wrestling legend Rey Misterio, uncle of masked WWE star Rey Mysterio.) In the movie, he still has the mask on, but we first see him getting tossed around the ring as a runt called El Topo. (Bernal always looks scrawny next to these bruisers, so maybe Williams thought presenting Armendariz as a scrappy geek would be more believable.)
Williams also dumps the male mentors who influenced Armendariz’s career. This includes Babe Sharon, a fellow gay wrestler who encouraged Armendariz to go exotico, and longtime partner/rival Pimpinela Escarlata, who saved Armendariz’s life after he found him in the bathroom after a suicide attempt. (Don’t look for that to happen here.) Next to his mom, his biggest confidant/cheerleader in the film is a female wrestler (queer actress Roberta Colindrez) who literally shows him the ropes.
The men in Cassandro are mostly portrayed as pitiful, confused man-children. Armendariz has an on-the-low romance with a married, closeted wrestler (Raul Castillo), while mom is still carrying a torch for his father (Robert Salas), who abandoned them (and went back to his other family) after Armendariz came out. And there are a couple scenes where Latin superstar Bad Bunny inexplicably shows up as a coke-carrying lackey whom Armendariz awkwardly hits on.
From his childhood molestation to a drug and alcohol addiction in his prime, there are many things from Armendariz’s life that you’d naturally think would end up in his biopic. And, yet, Williams omits much of his troubled history so his subject can be seen as flawed but strong-willed, a tough, resilient queer icon from across the border. “I am not a victim,” Armendariz said in that New Yorker piece. “But I am still damaged.” Solemn but suspicious, Cassandro is a hero’s journey that gets rid of the crutches — both figurative and literal — the lucha libre legend has struggled with for most of his life.
“Cassandro” is in theaters now. It streams, starting tonight, on Amazon Prime Video.