What little I know about lucha libre, the super-popular Mexican wrestling involving face masks, character personas, and elaborate costumes, has been from glimpses in mainstream American pop culture, through teases like the movie Nacho Libre or mentions on The Simpsons. I had not heard of gay Mexican-American superstar Cassandro, so it was a treat to get this introduction to the sport as well as see the portray of a real-life LGBTQ+ superhero that made huge waves in the sport by being the most flamboyant version of his true self.
The always-watchable Gael García Bernal plays Saúl Armendáriz, a gay El Paso amateur wrester who dreams of making it big as a luchador… except that because he is a small guy, he’s relegated to characters like his El Topo, whose role is to basically be tossed around by the goliath wrestlers in every match. But Saúl has an earnest passion for wrestling, which is recognized when he enlists the coaching help of Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), herself a luchadora. She advises him that his best chance at gaining attention is to become an exótico. The problem is, exóticos–luchadores who are flamboyant, stereotypically queer characters–may be entertaining and popular with the crowds, but they are there to lose to the true machismo wrestlers. And Saúl wants to WIN.
Cassandro is never specific about the years that it takes place, but is clear from the cars and the lack of technology that it’s set in the late-80s/early-90s, which is cleverly also reflected in the notable 4:3 aspect ratio of the movie (like your old TV set). So when Saúl debuts his new character named after a telenovela diva, he’s wearing Daisy Dukes, a tight leopard-print shirt from his mom’s closet, and elaborate makeup–which makes his choice of going maskless in front of a crowd chanting, “Faggot! Faggot!” not only groundbreaking but frankly terrifying. When Cassandro’s playful antics start to charm audiences, he and his coach begin making the demand that he gets to “win” some fights… and from there, his popularity explodes.
The closing credits show the real Cassandro, and it is easy to see why he was often referred to as the Liberace of lucha libre. Bernal’s version of the flamboyant wrestler seems more subdued, and maybe that is because we get to know more about Saúl, the real man, than Cassandro, the persona. There is a surprising melancholy tone to Saúl’s achievement of his dreams, as a man whose married boyfriend (Raúl Castillo) won’t acknowledge him publicly in the same way his own mother (a lovely Perla De La Rosa) forlornly pines for his father, a married man that dumped his second family when his son came out as gay. By the time he achieves fame, fortune, and eventually (post-credit) legend status, it is obvious that Saúl has made great sacrifices to achieve his dreams. But in turn, his Cassandro is now iconic in the world of lucha libre, and I can’t wait to see footage of the real Cassandro in and out of the ring.