‘Cassandro’: Gael García Bernal Triumphantly Returns in True Story of Groundbreaking Gay Luchador

History is full of people who never set out to be pioneers. The circumstances of their dreams dropped them into the role. Such was the fate of Saúl Armendáriz, an amateur gay wrestler from El Paso, Texas, who dreamed big and ended up defying the homophobic norms of macho Latino culture. His story is told in “Cassandro” with a unique combination of joy and melancholy. Gael García Bernal returns in one of those roles that frames his own special appeal as a major Mexican actor mostly known for notable, at times groundbreaking, international and arthouse films. Rarely has Bernal ever appeared in anything with a massive budget. Even his one Marvel appearance was a small, black and white experiment. He’s attracted to stories like this one, where the characters and the small details of their lives take center stage.

Bernal plays Saúl, who lives in El Paso with his mother, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa). At night he crosses over to El Paso’s sister Mexican city, Ciudad Juárez, to wrestle in that particular style from across the border known as lucha libre. He wrestles at one popular spot set in an auto shop. But Saúl dreams of going farther and goes to a gym to meet Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), herself a known wrestler in the local scene. Saúl wants to stand out by creating his own version of an “exótico,” the name used for flamboyant wrestler personas evoking gay stereotypes. Traditionally, exóticos are never supposed to win matches against the big, growling macho heroes. Saúl is determined to overturn that trend with his creation, Cassandro, who is made to win. When his character, decked in glittery suits and red lipstick, proves popular, Saúl is approached by a manager, Lorenzo (Joaquín Cosio). The lucha world’s highest doors open for the gay wrestler, which he happily walks through while facing a society’s prejudices.

This is not the first time director Roger Ross Williams has put the Saúl Armendáriz story on film. In 2016 he made the short documentary titled “The Man Without a Mask,” a vibrant portrait of Armendáriz’s journey mostly told through the wrestler’s own voice. The documentarian’s eye for detail is also what helps “Cassandro” be more immersive than just another sports movie. Williams and writer David Teague, also from the documentary world, understand that an athlete, like an artist, can be devoted to a passion for what it channels about them. Saúl wrestles because he likes it and because we sense he enjoys disappearing behind an invented persona. The irony is that Cassandro can be and do what is true to Saúl’s sexuality openly. Much of his life is indeed a mask, even his romantic relationship with Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), a fellow wrestler who happens to be married. Saúl is haunted by his absentee father, a supposedly devout Christian who shunned his son for coming out. 

It’s easy to root for Saúl not only out of human decency, but because Bernal makes him come alive as a complex and vivacious person. He has the charming friendliness, even naivety of a borderland Mexican used to crisscrossing the border. To Mexicans on the other side he’s a “pocho,” meaning he’s ethnically one of them but really comes from the United States. His dreams are not narcissistic or overly greedy. Saúl wants to buy a better home in the El Paso suburbs so he and Sabrina, played by Robert Colindrez with that intense and sweet devotion of many a Latino mom, can simply live better. When he finds management, it’s almost endearing how Saúl instantly tries to flirt with Lorenzo’s right hand, the young and attractive Felipe (played flawlessly by Bad Bunny). Unlike many backstage stories, there’s nothing ominous in Saúl finding success. There are already enough challenges in taking on the embedded homophobia of Mexican society.

As a sports movie, “Cassandro” uniquely explores those particular contradictions in Latin American culture. For a society that has been so chauvinistic, Mexico’s artistic culture has always been at the same time famous for its romanticism, including endless songs about men crying over women. When Saúl as Cassandro first enters the arena to face off the mountainous Gigántico (played by a real wrestler with the fascinating name Murder Clown), the crowd instantly shouts homophobic slurs and abuse. Once he starts beating his opponent, the tide turns and no longer is Cassandro merely a stereotype, but a heroic figure. He has to prove his strength and power to an audience conditioned to see gay men as fragile. But the system is still hard to beat. When Cassandro gets his biggest break yet, to wrestle the famous El Hijo Del Santo (played by the legendary wrestler himself) in Mexico City, it’s made clear he’s still expected to lose. 

For Gael García Bernal this is a triumphant return to the kind of leading roles that established his reputation. Ever since debuting on the global scene with 2000’s “Amores Perros,” his acting has been one of transformative choices. One moment he would be a young Che Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries,” and the next an alluring drag singer in Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education.” In “Cassandro,” he delivers a performance on par with Michal Douglas in “Behind the Candelabra.” He gives Saúl Armendáriz the glitzy charm of a Liberace, but also makes him down to earth. Saúl is naïve as many of us are when our dreams are suddenly made possible. He instantly parties too hard when the money starts rolling in and Mexico City beckons. Gerardo also worries his lover is taking his invented persona too seriously. But who wouldn’t? He also carries a very special kind of heroism. With his dashing costumes and Fellinesque makeup, Cassandro becomes Saúl as a cultural pioneer. Soon a gay teen will shout to him from a crowd that he’s iconic, but the entire crowd itself can’t resist the infectious energy of Cassandro’s wrestling bouts. Being revolutionary can sometimes mean obliterating false perceptions and opening someone’s eyes to see others as joyously human.

Cassandro” releases Sept. 15 in select theaters and begins streaming Sept. 22 on Amazon Prime Video.