Saúl Armendáriz has been a professional luchador since 1988. In Cassandro we see his rise from humble runt to celebrated exótico. The Liberace of Lucha Libre. The exóticos would wrestle in drag. Regardless of their sexuality they adopted flamboyant queer personas. They were often presented as clowns for the audience to boo and jeer at. It took time for them to gain respect as formidable wrestlers. Armendáriz’s alter ego, Cassandro, is known for celebrating queer joy. His biopic, unfortunately, is sad queer drama 101.
Gael García Bernal played vibrant queer roles in his breakout films Y tu mamá también (2001) and Bad Education (2004). He has the charm and sex appeal to elevate Cassandro above its tropey screenplay. He’s remarkably fit and performs his own stunts in the brutal matches. Is he a good wrestler? As a sports agnostic I could not say. He seems to repeat a handful of moves as he trips up opponents twice his size. Where he excels is working the crowd. Shaking his hips and flashing his megawatt smile. His one sex scene is filmed primly from the chest up. The ring is where he’s objectified.
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The film contrasts Armendáriz’s performances with his glum working class life. Bernal smiles through tears like Norma Shearer, Fanny Brice and other lovelorn heroines of yore. He tends to his depressed mother (MVP Perla De La Rosa), longs for his absent father (inscrutable Robert Salas) and pines for a married man (vulnerable Raúl Castillo). Bad Bunny has been highlighted for his small role as a dealer. But the character is only there to snort cocaine and rebuff Bernal’s flirtations. The real Armendáriz has spoken openly of dark things in his past. But I doubt his life was the ceaseless gray haze depicted here.
The biopic formula tells us that no one can have it all. The more one devotes to career, the lonelier one is at night. De-Lovely, The Imitation Game and Bohemian Rhapsody present queerness as a tragic flaw. An obstacle to happiness. 2019’s Rocketman features magical realism but ends before Elton John can start a healthy relationship. Cassandro ultimately suggests that Armendáriz provided inspiration to queer youth. A fine message. Fans of Armendáriz and Bernal should check it out. But the movie could have benefited from more magic and less grit.
For more information on Armendáriz’s career check out the 2018 documentary Cassandro, the Exotico! For the thrill of watching queer youth beat up their tormentors watch 2023’s Bottoms. For more gay romance set in El Paso, Texas in the 80’s try the recent Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. If you want to see Bernal play a queer fantasy, watch the pool scene from Almodóvar’s Bad Education.
Photo courtesy of Alejandro Lopez Pineda/Amazon Content Services LLC