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Gael García Bernal crushes it (and others) as 'Cassandro,' lucha libre's queer pioneer

Gael García Bernal and El Hijo del Santo in <em>Cassandro</em>.
Alejandro Lopez Pineda
Amazon Content Services LLC
Gael García Bernal and El Hijo del Santo in Cassandro.

If you, like me, know little about the gaudily theatrical style of professional wrestling known as lucha libre, the new movie Cassandro offers a vivid crash course — emphasis on the crash.

It begins in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez, where hulking wrestlers, or luchadores, clobber each other in the ring. They sport bright-colored masks, skin-tight costumes and menacing monikers like "the Executioner of Tijuana." They smash each other over the head with chairs or guitars while onlookers cheer and jeer from the sidelines. The outcome may be predetermined, but there's still real drama in this mix of brutal sport and choreographed ballet.

Our guide to this world is Saúl Armendáriz, a real-life lucha libre queer pioneer, wonderfully played here as a scrappy up-and-comer by Gael García Bernal. Saúl is an outsider, and not just because he's gay. He's a Mexican American wrestler from El Paso who comes to Ciudad Juárez for the fights. He's scrawnier than most fighters, and thus often gets cast as the runt — and the runt, of course, never wins.

But Saúl wants to win, and to make a name for himself. His opening comes when his coach, played by Roberta Colindrez, encourages him to consider becoming an exótico, a luchador who performs in drag.

When Saúl first steps into the ring as his new exótico persona, Cassandro, he receives plenty of anti-gay slurs from the crowd. The movie shows us how, in lucha libre culture, queer-coded performance and rampant homophobia exist side-by-side.

But Cassandro soon makes clear that he's not just a fall guy or an object of ridicule. He weaponizes his speed, his lithe physique and his flirtatious charm, disarming his opponents and his onlookers. And after a tough first bout, he starts to win over the crowd, which actually likes seeing the exótico win for a change.

Saúl loves his new persona, in part because the aggressively showy Cassandro allows him to perform his queerness in ways that he's had to repress for much of his life. Some of the details are drawn from the real Saúl's background, which was chronicled in the 2018 documentary Cassandro, the Exótico!

Saúl came out as gay when he was a teenager and was rejected by his father, a distant presence in his life to begin with. Fortunately, his mother, well played by Perla de la Rosa, has always supported him; her fashion sense, especially her love of animal prints, clearly inspired Cassandro's look. But Saúl's newfound success doesn't sit well with his boyfriend, Gerardo, a married, closeted luchador, played by the gifted Raúl Castillo.

The director Roger Ross Williams, who wrote the script with David Teague, directs even the bloodier wrestling scenes with an elegance that makes us aware of the artifice; this isn't exactly the Raging Bull of lucha libre movies, and it isn't trying to be. The wrestling itself feels a little sanitized compared with the documentary, which showed many of Saúl's gruesome injuries in the ring, several of which required surgery. Overall, Williams' movie is stronger on texture than narrative drive; Cassandro experiences various setbacks and defeats, plus one devastating loss, but the drama never really builds to the expected knockout climax.

That's not such a bad thing. Williams clearly wants to celebrate his subject as a groundbreaking figure in lucha libre culture, and he has little interest in embellishing for dramatic effect. With a lead as strong as the one he has here, there's no need. Bernal has always been a wonderful actor, so it's saying a lot that this performance ranks among his best. Beyond his remarkable athleticism and physical grace, it's joyous to see Saúl, a gay man already so at ease with who he is, tap into a part of himself that he didn't realize existed. He takes an invented persona and transforms it into something powerfully real.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.