In director Roger Ross Williams’ “Cassandro”, Gael García Bernal gives a performance of vibrant beauty. The actor’s presence here is one of purity and warmth earning the early talk of a long overdue Oscar nomination.


Written by David Teague and director Williams, the film is a well-written and emotional celebration of a courageous and groundbreaking true life Exótico legend. Beginning in the world of 1980s lucha libre, Bernal’s Saúl Armendáriz is a small-time wrestler named “El Topo”. Due to his small build, Saúl is always forced to lose; as everyone is quite aware, the wrestling game is a show with predetermined outcomes. 


Full of determination and self pride, Saúl wants more from wrestling and tires of his current masked alter ego. Seeking to create his own persona in the ring, Saúl finds a trainer and friend in Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), who deals with her own struggles as an outsider, being a female wrestler in the male dominated sport. Together they come up with the idea for him to become the flamboyant character “Cassandro”, who was to be the first exótico (a feminine-styled wrestler designed to always lose) to win against his more macho opponents. 


With his matches in Mexico, Saúl lives with his mother (Perla De La Rosa) in El Paso, Texas. The two have a good relationship and there is respect and love, if not a small bit of resentment from the mother towards her son. When Saúl declared his homosexuality as a teenager, the two were abandoned by his father. 


As Cassandro, Bernal is completely rousing. The character has a fierce swagger and flamboyant style and the actor embraces every larger-than-life moment. As Saúl, Bernal is sweet and delicate. The performance is one of natural emotion. Saúl is flawed (as are all humans) but a kind soul. Much as the wrestling audiences cheer on Cassandro (after overcoming their bigotry), Bernal’s excellent work keeps viewers engaged and rooting for his character. 


There are fine moments when the screenplay (combined with Williams’ commited filmmaking and the rousing score from Marcelo Zarvos) captures the raw energy of the wrestlers and the crowds who cheer them on. The finest of these being when Cassandro gets his big break, wrestling against the famous “Son of Santo”. Putting up a good fight, Cassandro wins over both the crowd and the legendary wrestler with heart and drive. 


In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Saúl (as Cassandro) appears years later on Son of Santo’s talk show. A fan in the audience expresses his gratitude for giving him the courage to come out to his understanding father. With tears in his eyes, Saúl’s face registers both the happiness of being a role model for gay youth and the unforgettable pain of his own father’s rejection. This is the film’s strongest moment and one of the finest of Gael García Bernal’s career. 


Williams’ film is at its best when capturing the freedom Saúl finds within himself by way of his alter ego. 


The triumph of the human spirit has long been a mainstay of any sports film. While there is heart in this picture, “Cassandro” is more human drama than sports biopic. The journey of Saúl Armendáriz is one born of a desire for acceptance. In the bout with Son of Santo, the audience is against the ostentatious Cassandro, meeting his entrance with boos. As he proves his mettle against his more famous opponent, the derision turns to cheers and eventually, respect.


It is here where “Cassandro” becomes more than a sports film, more than a biography, and more than just queer cinema. This fine work becomes a representative for change in an overly macho culture and a microcosm for the fight for acceptance.



Written by David Teague & Roger Ross Williams

Directed by Roger Ross Williams

R, 107 Minutes, Amazon Studios/Double Hope Films