‘Cassandro’ review: Gael García Bernal is fabulous in True Story
Sundance: The Star Rises in Roger Ross William’s wonderful feature film debut.
Simultaneously hyper-masculine and flamboyant, Mexican lucha libre has long been a popular form of entertainment for the masses. An escape from the burden of poverty and outright violence, the spectacle features brightly clad heroes known as Technology who embody the forces of good. Your adversaries, the Rudos, play recognizable villains who can also be cheered on. Their duels in the ring show as much artistry as physical prowess.
In this larger than life display of testosterone fueled riots, bodies flying through the air, choreographed uppercuts and orchestrated victories; The emergence of gay wrestler Saúl Armendáriz (stage name: Cassandro) in the 1980s was a shock wave against homophobia. Deceptively delicate in appearance, drawing on clichés with colorful defiance, but just as much a technique racquet as the burliest of them.
As a “exotic”, Armendáriz, a euphemistic term used in Mexican wrestling to refer to LGBTQ+ female wrestlers wearing glamorous outfits, transcended the conventions of masculinity associated with this sport/show. Before him, the recording of exotics came with the dismissive caveat that they must always lose to their macho counterparts.
The inspirational life story of Arbendáriz was previously told by director Roger Ross Williams in his 2016 documentary The Man Without a Mask. Later, the 2018 nonfiction film Cassaandro, The Exotico! has tackled not only his rise to fame, but also the physical injuries he sustained over nearly three decades of fighting. This year’s fabulous retelling, Cassandro, Ross Williams’ first narrative appearance, stars the compelling Gael García Bernal as a real-life amateur luchador from El Paso, Texas who unexpectedly became a beacon of change.
Skepticism about documentary filmmakers moving into fiction, especially on a project that is largely in a foreign language with a variety of culture-specific traits, is justified; But “Cassandro” makes for an impressive transition for Ross Williams, as well as co-writing with David Teague, whose previous credits have been primarily as editor.
That García Bernal’s own production company, La Corriente del Golfo, was involved – with key Mexican artists who also served perhaps by implication as cultural consultants – as well as Ross Williams’ familiarity with the real Arbendáriz are likely the reasons why the filmmaker successfully avoided making a film with a distinct outsider perspective.
The believable dialogue, which casually switches between Spanish and English when needed, even includes particularly specific slang terms like “El Chuco,” a nickname for El Paso. The cast of Mexican and Mexican-American actors speak in the language they are most comfortable with. As obvious as this choice may seem, non-Latin American directors rarely consider these relevant differences in cast and execution.
Before becoming Cassandro, Saúl wrestled as El Topo, a second-rate character destined to be tossed around by the amateur wrestling stars of a secret venue (a car shop across the border in Ciudad Juarez). But when he befriends Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), a wrestler and trainer, Saúl begins to embrace a side of himself that he’s long suppressed. Taking his luchador name from a ’90s Venezuelan soap opera called Kassandra, he crafts his own dazzling getups, initially crafted from his mother’s clothes.
As Saúl/Cassandro, Garcia Bernal delivers one of his most complex performances to date. Alongside the brooding and spiteful husband he played in Pablo Larraín’s Emma just a few years ago, one is reminded of the wide range of his abilities. The Mexican actor previously played a gay character, more specifically a drag queen, in Pedro Almodóvar’s fragmented meta-drama Bad Education, where the finely calibrated task of portraying two personalities within the same body in similar ways – as well as the intersections – challenges him between them.
Outside the ring, Saúl often hides behind a facade of shyness that may have come from trauma. The actor not only avoids the step into offensive, caricature-like depictions of homosexuality, but also emphasizes his love of acting. Once Cassandro emerges, he frees himself from concern for the opinions of others and exaggerates extravagance to make his rivals and narrow-minded audience uncomfortable. He skilfully confronts her with her homophobic prejudices.
As the angry crowd roars grotesque insults at the first appearance of his new identity, Saúl, now fearless in the role of Cassandro, shows his panache to the tune of the late Cuban singer Celia Cruz’s Spanish-language version of “I Will Survive.” The booing turns to adoration as, instead of succumbing to their hatred, he flaunts his hard-won talent. It’s not about her anymore, it’s about defending his self-love.
Soon, Lorenzo (veteran Mexican actor Joaquín Cosio), a seedy, mullet-wearing businessman and spontaneous promoter, begins booking legitimate matches for Cassandro, including a televised one in Mexico City, the epicenter of Lucha Libra, against El Hijo del Santo , the son of legend Luchador and movie star El Santo. The encounter draws an even more grandiose ovation for the warrior of exuberant presence. There is a striking difference in how cinematographer Matias Penachino films Saúl’s melancholy reality with soft lighting, and the broadcast of the sequences as he struggles to take control of his destiny.
Appropriate musical references abound. As Saúl and his mother sneak into the heart-shaped swimming pool of their dream home, the celebratory intro to Mexican queer icon Juan Gabriel’s “Hasta que te conocí” plays as an organic soundtrack to Saúl’s conflicted state of mind: on the verge of financial success, but in Shadow of his father’s rejection. Flashbacks to Saul’s childhood, a conventional device used with moderation here, do not explain the family dynamics as the son of his father’s mistress, but provide emotional insights.
Though structured with the familiar stuff of an uplifting story, “Cassandro” doesn’t sugarcoat Saul’s drug addiction or his rocky romantic relationship with Gerardo, played by the always memorable Raul Castillo, a withdrawn married father who sneaks into Saul’s house whenever his woman it does is gone. Castillo’s role provides further evidence of how toxic masculinity derails the emotional lives of the men under his yoke and those around them.
The casting of Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, better known as reggaeton superstar Bad Bunny, as Lorenzo’s sidekick in his drug-dealing operation seems groundless. Aside from a brief kiss between the Puerto Rican singer and García Bernal, his shot feels inconsequential. However, part of Bad Bunny’s current popularity also stems from his stance against gender norms, which may have influenced Ross Williams’ thought process.
Exuding García Bernal’s allure, Cassandro balances the triumphant elevation of Arbendáriz’s unique development as a trailblazer who didn’t aspire to become one with the obvious, still unresolved, bigotry that made his career so meaningful and groundbreaking made way. The social and the personal come together in each of his performances. In every agile movement, a graceful smack against hatred.
Cassandro premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon Prime Video will release it later this year.
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https://www.indiewire.com/2023/01/cassandro-review-gael-garcia-bernal-1234802173/ ‘Cassandro’ review: Gael García Bernal is fabulous in True Story