Professional wrestling loves to craft a narrative. Often, the wrestlers are playing broad characters divorced from their lives, but they’re still real people, with hopes and dreams. Playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Cassandro marries the world of wrestling with an LGBTQ biopic. If that sounds like an odd marriage for a movie, this project manages to rise above that, crafting something engaging, entertaining, and even moving.
Cassandro is unlikely subject matter for a biopic, but it uses that to its advantage. By taking the yearning to succeed in wrestling seriously, it makes the non-wrestling elements work as well. With a strong central performance at its core, the sports trappings are just one part of the flick. It’s also just a solid biopic of its own accord.
The story of Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal), a gay professional wrestler in El Paso. Long having played bad guys destined to lose, it’s all wearing on him. Tired of the nightly humiliation and dreaming of more, Saúl is able to convince the talented Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) to be his trainer. Saúl wants to actually win, as well as showcase his own personality. In a quest for that, he creates Cassandro, a character based on the title role from the Kassandra telenovela. Sabrina and Saúl intend to win, but an openly gay wrestler in a homophobic sport? That’s going to be an up hill battle.
Debuting the persona of Cassandro, the booing comes fast and furious. Still, Saúl persists. As he’s fighting for respect in the ring, out of the ring he’s pursuing a fellow wrestler named Gerardo, (Raúl Castillo), who is not just in the closet but married as well. Much of what happens is fairly expected, but watching Cassandro grow is undeniably compelling.
Gael García Bernal embraces the role and dives in fully to this film. Raúl Castillo doesn’t have nearly as much to do, but the talented actor does his best to elevate the role. Roberta Colindrez has a sort of stock trainer part, but the gender reversal makes it a bit more interesting. Supporting players here include Bad Bunny, Perla de la Rosa, and more, but Bernal is the unquestioned star.
Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams makes his narrative debut here, directing and co-writing with David Teague. They’re clearly fascinated with Armendáriz’s story, but moreover, they’re respectful of it. So, you see Cassandro avoid cliches and going to broad. It seems like it can at any point, especially when the masked wrestlers are in action, but the movie never does.
Cassandro doesn’t reinvent the biopic wheel, but by filtering it through the world of Mexican wrestling, it finds a unique voice for its story. Once you see this one, as it moves beyond Sundance, you’ll see why Saúl Armendáriz was able to go from an amateur wrestler to an international star. He had the goods, which this film does as well.