Gael García Bernal is the kind of actor who elevates his material. Yet even by his lofty standards, Bernal’s performance as real-life wrestler Saúl Armendáriz is phenomenal. A gay amateur wrestler from El Paso who became a star in the late '80s, Armendáriz broke down barriers around queerness in the sport as his wrestling character Cassandro, aka ‘the Liberace of Lucha Libre’.
Having explored gender and sexual fluidity before, in films such as Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education, Bernal here conveys that spirit of mischievous defiance. He also convinces as a bad-ass fighter, able to take down opponents twice his size. The result is a layered character study, ensuring Cassandro fascinates equally whether he’s hamming it up for the audience or – in the quieter moments – just living his life as Saúl.
Director Roger Ross Williams (who in 2016 made a non-fiction short about Armendáriz, titled The Man Without a Mask), brings an impressive elegance to the film, framing wrestling scenes and conversations between lovers alike with care and flourish. Refreshingly, too, unlike in so many queer stories, he steers away from a focus on misery and trauma.
Even when Saúl struggles with addiction, injury, and rejection, his suffering doesn’t define him or the film, both maintaining a sense of playfulness and a belief in Cassandro’s ability to overcome the toxic masculinity of the world around him. While the biopic is determinedly feel-good, and sometimes a little over the top, Williams holds true to the spirit of someone who - like Gael García Bernal - was a born entertainer.
Cassandro is in selected cinemas now and streams on Prime Video from September 22.