by Hope Madden
There’s rarely a good reason to miss a performance from Gael García Bernal. Even when the material around him doesn’t exactly work, he always does. His performances tend to be marked with a quietly observant, charming resilience.
In Cassandro, the narrative feature debut from documentarian Roger Ross Williams, Bernal amplifies that charm and resilience with an energy and magnetism that dares you to look away.
Bernal plays Saúl Armendáriz, a real life El Paso amateur lucha librador. Saúl loves wrestling, loves his mother, quietly loves another closeted librador, but wants more. Because of his size, he’s been pegged a “runt” which means, in the pre-determined and choreographed matches, he must always lose.
He doesn’t want to lose.
What Williams and Bernal channel is lucha libre – this unusual and rarely represented world – as a microcosm for society. The odds are stacked against Saúl. He cannot win. It’s not allowed. It’s not the role he gets to play.
So, he decides 1) to find a really good trainer (Roberta Colindrez, understated and excellent), and 2) play the “exotico” – that is, a wrestler who performs in drag.
Exoticos never, ever get to win.
And yet, the persona allows Saúl to be a little bolder, a little louder, a more vivid version of himself. It’s empowering. Cassandro still has to lose to the likes of El Gigántico because “lucha libre is a fairy tale and good must always triumph over evil.” But as his skill and charisma earn him fans, suddenly that old fairy tale feels less important to the promoters who decide match outcomes.
Ross’s documentarian instincts serve the film beautifully, as the world of lucha libre is never treated as a sideshow. There’s humor here, but we laugh with characters rather than at them. And though Cassandro hits the beats you’d expect from a dramatic biopic journey, moments feel authentic rather than manipulated for dramatic effect.
The entire ensemble shines, but Bernal owns the screen, his ever present smile a heartbreaking and beautiful image of the resilience and determination that fueled an icon of wrestling and LGBTQ culture.