This sporting underdog tale has all the elements that scream ‘Oscar buzz’. Based on a real person, Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal) is an openly gay wrestler in a run-down Mexican border town when we meet him. Known as El Topo (The Mole), his slight frame and effeminate nature mean that he is routinely cast as a pipsqueak, thrown around by his giant opponents.
He has dreams, though, to become ‘the Liberace of Luchador’ and to do this, he must take on the persona of an “exotico”. These are wrestlers who don make-up and a feminine look, but who are traditionally doomed to be punching bags and on-stage sponges for the crowd’s homophobia. Emerging as ‘Cassandro’ (named after a camp Mexican soap opera), Armendáriz wants to flip the script and be an exotico who wins.
We’ve had movies exploring the inner lives of wrestlers before - most famously Aaranofsky’s The Wrestler - and this movie shares the grit and grime of their reality. Cassandro is mainly supported by women: his hard-working single mother, and his trainer Sabrina (the excellent Roberta Colindrez), a local lucha success who spots his potential.
As Cassandro starts to move up the ranks, he attracts a possibly scummy promoter and his pseudo-gangster son (Bad Bunny), as well as scorn and admiration in equal measure from the crowds. There are unavoidably cliched training and sporting montages as the process takes on momentum, but Bernal’s showy magnetism easily carries them in an engagingly joyous way.
Conflict comes in the shape of his relationship with his closeted wrestler lover (Raúl Castillo), who has a family that holds his main affections, and another man - the estranged father who first introduced him to lucha libre. Bernal channels his anxieties about these relationships into hard work on his craft, and increasingly risky behavior as his lot in life improves.
There’s a lot to love in the flamboyance of Bernal’s character and his determined challenges to well-established macho norms. Bernal does great work combining camp showmanship, sporting grit and extreme vulnerability, and some of the wrestling sequences are genuinely impressive.
For me, though, what must have been some very testing real life stakes are kind of rushed through. Cassdandro wins over hostile crowds in an instant and seemingly cruises to a nationally-televised glamor match. There’s a shift in tone over the last 20 minutes that glosses over a lot of character development and the climax doesn’t feel quite earned in some way.
There’s some touching scenes, especially between Cassandro and his mother, a tough but loving woman, wonderfully portrayed by Perla De La Rosa. Bernal, too, is warmly charismatic and real, and you’re on his side from the off. Personally, I felt that director Roger Ross Williams didn’t quite stick the knockout, but the bout as a whole is still an enjoyable ride. (PO)
Cassandro is currently showing at The Broad Theater.
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