Cassandro, the fictional debut from filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, is one of the highest profile LGBTQ+ releases debuting at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and without question one of the jewels in the crown of the festival this year. Williams takes the true story of the “Liberace of lucha libre,” Cassandro, one of Mexico’s few openly gay luchadors in the the lucha libre wrestling scene of Juárez, Mexico, bolstering it with a sublime turn from Gael García Bernal.
Roger Ross Williams and David Teague write the story of Mexican wrestler Saúl (Bernal), exhausted with playing El Topo, a nondescript, masked runt who always loses his matches. When his new trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) suggests he begin playing a flamboyant and often effeminate exótico, Saúl debuts the flamboyant and powerful Cassandro, who captures the crowd’s attention and affection. However this transition has a knock on effect on Saúl’s elderly mother and his secret lover Gerardo (Raúl Castillo).
Williams captures the confusing dichotomy of the world of entertainment wrestling – the queerness and pageantry of the wrestling world is seen in the exóticos – their flamboyant tongue-in-cheek behaviour and extravagant bejewelled costumes paired with an unfiltered masculinity with the wrestling world’s fascination regarding strength and power dynamics. The rampant jeering from the crowd at these often effeminate figures, musters connotations of homophobia which makes Cassandro’s story all the more impressive. The mild-mannered Saúl navigates this environment with a cautious trepidation until emerging out the wrestling closet at the defiantly queer Cassandro.
Williams and Teague develop Saúl’s family dynamic throughout: drawn to wrestling through his now absent father, he is the doting son to a mother who still pines for this broken relationship. Saúl and his mother navigate as a two person team, facing the scorn and bitterness from neighbours labelling Saúl a bastard. Saúl navigates a discreet relationship with straight married wrestler Gerardo – who other than fleeting moments of passion, ignores his existence. Given the stack of odds against Saúl, we are truly invested when the wrestler decides to fully embrace the flamboyance and openness of his persona of Cassandro – a figure that holds the power, is unafraid of judgement, and packs a few solid wrestling moves.
Director of photography Matias Penachino shoots the feature capturing the bright airiness of the Juárez setting, whilst capturing a grimy interior to the often low-rent wrestling venues. Penachino’s depiction of the fight scenes capture a gritty punch and harshness, showcasing the violent reality of Saúl’s career. The polarising fusion of this grit with the high camp world of the exoticos, makes for a fascinating narrative angle whilst providing euphoric moments of joy such as Cassandro dancing into the wrestling ring to Baccara.
Bernal mesmerises in his beautifully human depiction of Saúl – the perpetual underdog gaining a sense of acceptance and strength from living as his authentic self. The actor tackles this tale of queer identity with a sensitivity and wit, depicting a trailblazer who never set out to become one – thriving as a queer person in an environment of unabashed machismo.
Cassandro is a celebratory triumph. Depicting a tale of authenticity over bigotry and shining through a masterful turn from Bernal and undeniably investing narrative from Williams and Teague, this is a modern classic.