Follows the true story of Cassandro, the ”exotico” character created by Saúl Armendáriz, gay amateur wrestler from El Paso who rose to international stardom.
In lucha libre (Mexican professional wrestling), an exotico is a male fighter who performs in drag. This is an outsized entertainer that’s purposely campy, their purpose being to undercut the inherent machismo of the “sport.” Their attire is flamboyant, often consisting of feather boas, tight suggestive clothing, and sequins, all bolstered by elaborate make-up. While welcome for their comic relief, they were not allowed to win any of the matches. Apparently, the tough guys in charge would only allow a joke to go so far.
All of this changed with the coming of Cassandro, an exotico who burst on the wrestling scene in 1988. Born Saul Armendariz in El Paso, Texas, the performer was able to change the public’s perception regarding how he and his cohorts were perceived, as well as how their presence could help popularize lucha libre beyond the Mexican border.
Roger Ross William’s “Cassandro” charts his rise, examining his life as an outsider, a status he only came to embrace after much hardship and soul searching. Raised by Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), a single mother who continues to pine for the married man who is Saul’s father, she makes ends meet by doing laundry and, it is suggested, some illicit nighttime activities. Her son is her world, embracing him for who he is, encouraging him to be who he is, despite societal prejudices.
The spectacle of, as well as the fact that his father took him to, luchador contests is what draws him to this world. Starting with matches that take place in the back of auto repair garages, Saul meets Sabrina, a luchadoras who admires his drive but sees he needs help with the physical aspects of the sport. As he trains, Saul experiments with his sewing machine, fashioning one outfit after another, hoping to assemble a persona that will set him apart.
The tone of the film is completely unexpected. Instead of mirroring the extravagance of lucha libre, Williams takes a more somber approach. An unforced poignancy emerges as we see Saul and Yocasta sit watching his father from afar as well as from a flashback in which he blatantly shuns them both. This longing for a more traditional family leads Saul to enter into one doomed relationship after another, pursuing partners and situations he knows are unattainable. This lack of confidence, the feeling that he is not deserving of happiness is the greatest hurdle he must overcome. This is what drives the young man to seek acceptance, while his mother encourages him to do so without compromising.
Gael Garcia Bernal is perfectly cast, as the actor embraces the flashy nature of the character while providing the heart that ingratiates him to us. He and De Le Rosa are wonderful, not a false note between them throughout, their scenes executed quietly and forcefully, providing the film with a welcome, dramatic foundation. This is bolstered throughout by Matias Penachino’s cinematography, as he captures the run-down nature of the world they’re trapped in. The grimy nature is palpable, effectively establishing a sense of place anyone would long to escape.
This is welcomed as the film lags during its second hour as tee script by David Teague and Williams can’t escape biopic predictability. We witness Cassandro triumph early, get caught up in the sudden attention, take a fall and then rally to triumph, enduring one personal heartbreak after another along the way. I suppose this sort of thing is unavoidable when your life is a rags-to-riches story. Thankfully, Bernal’s fine work and the undeniable power of the story make “Cassandro” worth entering the ring for.