Although it takes less than half an hour to drive from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso, the cities might as well be located on different planets. Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez is constantly on the news for its high number of murders, with women being killed at an alarming rate, and is often considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. In El Paso, Texas, your biggest threats might be heat and dryness, and in 2020 the city was ranked among the five safest places to live in the United States.
For people born in El Paso to immigrant Mexican parents, the opportunity of free mobility between both worlds can provide something akin to constant cultural shock, life and death separated by a literal bridge. In Roger Ross Williams’ feature-length narrative debut Cassandro, the director plays with this dynamic without ever recurring to sensationalism to tell the story of the title luchador, who became an icon for being among the rare wrestlers to openly identify as gay.
Rather than reverting to a traditional biopic structure––i.e. a greatest hits (and losses) in someone’s life––Williams and co-screenwriter David Teague open almost in media res as we meet Saúl (Gael García Bernal), a wide-eyed young man who is head over heels in love with lucha libre. He spends his days crafting costumes to wrestle in and helping his mother Yocasta (a magnificent Perla de la Rosa) who does laundry and clothes-mending for locals. Unlike her namesake from Greek mythology, Yocasta dreams of nothing but a wonderful future for her adoring son, reassuring him he will make “a man very happy someday.”
Before doing so, Saúl must go on a hero’s journey of his own. Though dissatisfied with his poor performance when wrestling as “El Topo,” his life changes once he begins training with Sabrina (a scene-stealing Roberta Colindrez) who convinces him to put his true self in the wrestling ring by fighting as an exótico, a luchador who performs in drag and uses campy theatrics in a sport where hypermasculinity is the norm. Sabrina’s advice works wonders, (proving Colindrez is an expert an playing strong-willed figures who inspire others to “change their major”), and when Saúl leaves behind “El Topo” to begin wrestling as Cassandro, he changes his beloved field, turning it into a space where tradition and possibility can coexist.
Williams’ film is a wonder for refreshing the biopic and how LGBTQI characters are depicted onstage. To put it bluntly: there isn’t a single moment in Cassandro where we are asked to fear for our hero’s life. It’s not that the film forgoes the reality of being an openly gay man in a world that seems to be turning backward––hate crimes against LGBTQI people in Mexico have been on the rise over the last few years––but that the story it wants to tell is one of change and resistance.
In what might be the greatest performance of his career, Gael García Bernal crafts a man made of flesh and desire. This is not the first time the actor has explored his femininity to create an iconic character (his Zahara from Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education remains a touchstone moment in the actor’s oeuvre) and the fearlessness and sensitivity he brings to play Saúl / Cassandro as two sides of the same human are a joy.
His warm smile shines bright every time Cassandro arrives at a match. We understand that when he’s in costume he becomes untouchable, the slurs being yelled at him by audience members bouncing off his glittery costumes like water off a duck’s back. Without relying on facile sentimentality or clichés, the film tells us that in order to be himself, Cassandro mustered the courage of entire armies, and it’s his determination that fuels him.
The film is filled with some of the most sensual scenes in recent films about queer characters, shot by director of photography Matias Penachino with grace and attention to detail. Some of the most intimate moments are framed within doors that become love portals, whether we’re watching Saúl romance his closeted lover Gerardo (a brilliant Raúl Castillo) or preparing to go onstage for the most important match of his life.
Even then, the film skips the Rocky-ness of sports flicks where we’re told “everything” hangs on a single moment in the protagonist’s life. Cassandro instead is a love letter to anyone who dares to be different by being themselves in a world that truly could do with more glitter and sequins.
Cassandro premiered at Sundance 2023 and will be released on Prime Video.