We’re in a stadium filled with thousands of people – all eager wrestling fans keen to see some luchadores go toe-to-toe and theatrically beat the crap out of each other. As the lights dim and the crowd hushes, the ageing announcer introduces the fighters. A disco song begins the play. As the lights strobe, a figure in a glittering, floor-length robe and full drag makeup appears – Cassandro has entered the ring. The crowd erupts.
Cassandro is the ‘true’ story of Cassandro, the exótico character created by Saúl Armendáriz, a gay wrestler from El Paso, Texas, who rose from the Mexican lucha libre scene to international stardom. It’s a feel-good movie – headed by the ever-charismatic Gael García Bernal as the titular character – about triumphing over gender norms, and for that reason alone it should be worth catching when it drops on Prime Video tomorrow.
Behind the mask
A little bit of history: exóticos are male wrestlers that cross-dress, incorporating feminine aspects – and often lots of glitter – into their lucha libre look (think WWE mixed with RuPaul’s Drag Race). Unlike traditional luchadores, they fight without masks. The luchadores that choose to fight as exóticos now often do so with a motive to combat gender norms – but this wasn’t always the case.
For the majority of lucha libre history, exóticos have been used as an offensive gag; placing an effeminate man with campy flourishes as the villain of the fight, ready to be defeated by the técnico – i.e., the macho hero. It was very common to hear slurs being hurled at these men as they danced around the ring. The role of the exótico was not an empowered one, but an undignified stereotype used to reaffirm heteronormativity in sports.
Saúl Armendáriz – or Cassandro as he is better known – sought to break down these offensive stereotypes, not by rejecting the flamboyance of the exótico, but by embracing it and positioning them as potential heroes. Before his arrival on the lucha libre scene, it was almost unheard of to be an openly gay Mexican pro-wrestler.
As Saul/Cassandro, Bernal is fantastic, putting his all into what is an intensely physically challenging role and absolutely nailing it. It’s a shame, though, that the story overall is quite undercooked. Most of the film’s central characters and relationships are not fully developed, and I was left at the end wondering why they weren’t fleshed out more. This is one of the rare times I’d advocate for a film being at least 30 minutes longer.
The film hits all the classic underdog beats. Cassandro starts off as an amateur wrestler, the son of a poor single mother (played by Perla De La Rosa) and a closeted homosexual. When a fellow luchador suggests he might be better off as an exótico, it ignites a journey of self-discovery and a triumph over homophobia in the sport. There are also messy affairs, gay club scenes, and a multitude of daddy issues. Then it just sort of peters out.
As seems to be the current trend for biopics, there are many narrative choices in Cassandro that take artistic license. I’m not positioning that as a bad thing – it’s just interesting to note the why director Roger Ross Williams might have made these choices. Cassandro’s trainer, for example, is gender-swapped into a no-nonsense woman named Sabrina – a great role for Roberta Colindrez (Girls, Birdman) – who quite literally shows Cassandro the ropes and helps him actualise his exótico identity.
With the earlier set up of Cassandro’s hero being his mother, the choice to make his trainer female creates a nice thematic through-line of our protagonist being inspired by women’s strength.
The fight scenes are by far the highlight of the film – each superbly choreographed and dazzling to behold. Kudos to the choreography and stunt crew for making these dynamic sequences. We also get to see the most interesting costume work in these scenes, too, as Cassandro’s journey is reflected in the ensembles he chooses to wear into the arena. The moment where he chooses to use his mother’s well-worn leopard print leotard as his signature look is particularly endearing.
Perhaps the story of Cassandro is so well-known to this film’s target audience that the decision not to dedicate time to developing strong emotive connections was intentional. Perhaps not. But it feels as though the film just gives us the barest flashes of story, before plateauing out and fading into the credits.
If anything, it has inspired me to jump down the rabbit hole of Mexican wrestling and maybe watch a few docos about Cassandro and the exóticos that changed LGBTQIA+ sporting history.
Cassandro is available to stream on Prime Video from 22 September 2023.