Sundance 2023: Cassandro Review
In wrestling, kayfabe refers to the constructed reality of the performance. Just like movies, buying into the elaborate fiction is essential to the experience. For the aspirational Saúl (Gael García Bernal), he performs in the ring as a luchador and in his life as a gay man.
Like Saúl, Bernal delivers a winning performance in Cassandro, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Bernal’s magnetism is on full display in a movie whose predictable narrative is very much on rails. The film is based on the life of the real Saúl Armendáriz / Cassandro, about whom director Roger Ross Williams based the documentary The Man Without a Mask. Even with another documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico! from Marie Losier, Armendáriz’s story was due for a star-driven adaptation. Cassandro, Williams’s first fiction feature, is a colorful tale that doesn’t stray too far into the dark and rightly keeps its star front and center.
Saúl lives with his mother Yocasta (Perla de la Rosa) in late 1980s El Paso. She has a laundry business for which Saúl provides rides to her clients and a loving companion with whom to watch telenovelas. At night, Saúl indulges in his passion working local Lucha Libre matches as El Topo, a runt that gets thrown around by his burlier opponents. His love for the macho Mexican wrestling art began when he watched matches with his father, with whom he no longer shares a relationship. He sketches designs for his characters’ costumes and raids his mother’s colorful closet to make them.
After impressing Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), a respected wrestler who performs under the name Lady Anarchia, the two begin training. including the obligatory training montage and establishing a friendship. She suggests he change his wrestling persona to an exótico, a wrestler who performs in drag. Exóticos are treated as heels by the audience, who supply a constant supply of slurs and boos. Though hesitant at first, Sabrina’s encouragement pushes Saúl to create his new persona Cassandro.
Cassandro is met with redolence by the crowd and the show’s promoter but the character turns out to be the right vessel for his innate charisma. His performance transforms the jeers to cheers, setting him off on a series of instances where he turns skeptical crossed arms into supportive applause.
Through his new persona, Saúl blossoms into the beloved figure he’s always dreamed of becoming, both in and out of the ring. His opportunities and winnings grow, but his route to stardom is on an express train, and the bypassed stops make the journey too much of a breeze. The beats of his rise come in fairly quick succession and with little resistance. Though we’re routing for Saúl on his fast track to stardom, the pace undercuts his victories. It often takes little more than a brief experience with Cassandro before all doubts are extinguished. Whether it’s the crowds, his manager, or event promoters; everyone is quickly and a too easily on Team Cassandro.
The expedited pace of his journey also does no favors to his triumphs, whose stakes are not given enough setup time to feel their gravity. The momentum of his success is so great that the screenplay even skips over a match to go straight to the main event in Mexico City. Instead, that time is favored to Saúl’s personal life, where his victories are less forthcoming. It’s the big beating heart at the center of the story and what makes the dramatic concessions easy to forgive.
His rise means a better life for Yocasta, who is ostracized by many for being a single mother of a gay man. Their endearing relationship has one of its best moments in a scene where they break into a house Saúl would like to buy for them one day and swim in its heart-shaped pool. The two behave like the best of friends but even from her, he keeps his affair with a married man a secret. His clandestine relationship with a fellow wrestler occurs only when his family is out of town and, even then, never where the neighbors can see. At all other times, the two pretend to be no more than acquaintances, but when they’re together they get to play as the domestic couple that sits at the table and prays together before dinner.
Williams doesn’t lean into the homophobia inherent in the sport. Threats are mentioned, and the cultural distaste is present, but the film stays true to its tone and doesn’t indulge in any fetishizing of queer hate for cheap thrills.
Bernal’s charisma is the propeller that moves the story along; from enormous gestures for a boisterous audience to the minute adjustments in his expressions to dance partners in the club. Saúl believes in his fantasies of grandeur, and through him, we believe in them too.
It’s true, the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards have only just been announced, but this performance should give Bernal awards buzz.