The Pitch: Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal) did not begin his lucha libre wrestling career in the early 1980s as the exótico icon Cassandro — first, he was crossing the border from El Paso, Texas to his native Juarez, Mexico to be “El Topo,” a “runt” character with a scrappy fighting style and an outsider status. But despite being open about his queer sexuality in front of his macho wrestling peers, Armendáriz still has bigger ambitions for his wrestling persona. So, with the help of a new trainer, Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) — known as “Lady Anarquina” — Armendáriz rebirths himself as Cassandro the exótico.
An exótico in lucha libre refers to a male wrestler who performs in drag, wears makeup and flashy outfits, and fights with exaggerated femininity; though Cassandro was not the first exótico to become popular in Mexico, he was a significant character at a time when homophobia and “machismo” was the norm. As Armendáriz develops his persona and finds success as Cassandro, his relationships are challenged: Neglected by his father and raised largely by his mother, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), Armendáriz looks to her as an inspiration for Cassandro; meanwhile, as he gains more confidence as his character, his intimate relationships with closeted men, like fellow wrestler Gerardo (Raúl Castillo Jr.), are put to the test.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams in his narrative directorial debut, Cassandro (which premiered at Sundance this year) is a gorgeous, inspired look at the wrestler’s early career transformation, and a meditation on the aesthetics of performance in lucha libre. Whether you’re familiar with the real-life wrestler Cassandro or not, the film is dedicated to presenting this character’s evolution from a shy, small-town wrestling fanatic to a larger-than-life queer icon. (Oh, and Bad Bunny is in this one!)
Performance, Performance: Let’s start here — Gael García Bernal is astounding in this film. It’s more than likely his best performance yet. It’s one thing to accept a role and transform your body language, mannerisms, speaking voice, your entire physical regimen; when you’re at the level of someone like García Bernal, this is all a given. What makes his performance so spectacular is the way he embodies this character’s journey from inward to outward. The beaming, soft-spoken boy depicted in the opening of the film, compared to the fully-formed Cassandro we meet as he fights the culturally significant Son of Santo in Mexico City’s Palacio de los Deportes, is a remarkably tall order for an actor.
But García Bernal, who features in nearly every scene of this film (with the exception of several flashbacks depicting Armendáriz as a child), is utterly entrancing. Speaking in both English and Spanish throughout, he exhibits an intense command of language; his frequently understated deliveries, especially of lines that depict hardship or tension in relationships, help ground the character before the filmmakers elevate Cassandro to star supreme. His scenes with his mother are perfect examples of his “less is more” approach, with several heartbreaking scenes of connection between the two — you get the sense of Armendáriz wanting to protect his mother while also acknowledging her personal mistakes, his past slowly becoming at odds with his future.
Even more rewarding is the way García Bernal and the filmmakers explore the physical language of wrestling performance, and most specifically, that of an exótico. Wrestling, at its core, lives in a hybrid world between sport and art; it represents a performance of masculinity, complete with drama and narrative, that fashions the medium as a sort of aggro-soap opera. The role of an exótico, then, is to challenge the notion of wrestling as a purely masculine presentation and play with the idea of social performativity. In other words, the feminization and subsequent queer-ification of the traditionally masculine wrestling ring highlights the ways in which “machismo” is inherently a performance — which, in a more co-optive way, subverts the gender binary.