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Cassandro Review: A Never-Better Gael García Bernal Leads a Touching Biopic Where Camp Meets Verisimilitude

Cassandro is veritable proof that Gael García Bernal clearly knows how to pick the best movie roles. His latest turn in award-winning director Roger Ross Williams’ feature debut, which made its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is emblematic of a career that has been equal parts entertaining and chameleonic ever since he blazed onto the scene in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores perros in 2000.

In Cassandro, García Bernal is Saúl, a gay luchador in Juárez, Mexico, who is enjoying the mildest of successes as El Topo, a masked character whose only job in the ring is to lose. Though it’s a role that allows Saúl to do what he loves more than anything — wrestling, that is, and entertaining — he’s tired of being the loser. Looking to move up in the lucha libre scene, he hires Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) to be his new trainer. She suggests that Saúl play the role of the exótico, an unmasked, queer-coded, and flamboyant role meant to rouse hatred in the audience.

Again, however, the exótico isn’t ever meant to win a match. That said, when Saúl makes his debut as Cassandro, in all his fabulous, leopard-printed glory, the crowd can’t help but be obsessed with him. Soon, his star begins to rise, and Cassandro changes the rules of the game, but his newly found fame poses a threat to his relationship with his mother (Perla De La Rosa) and his secret lover (Raúl Castillo).

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Of the many Gael García Bernal movies in existence, Cassandro offers the actor one of the most emotionally complex roles of his career. It’s essentially a two-in-one biopic of sorts: on the one hand, there’s the more self-contained Saúl, who is living in a time and place where opportunities for love, success, and mobility aren’t necessarily as accessible because he’s gay; and, on the other, there’s Cassandro, Saúl’s wrestling alter-ego, who exudes the confidence and energy he yearns for outside the ring, standing firmly on the intersection of masculinity and femininity. García Bernal deftly walks the tightrope between the two, presenting to us a man who is, at once, hurt but full of love, desperate for change but unaware of his possibilities, and, above all, knows that he deserves a full life, but is somewhat afraid to take that step.

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Indeed, Williams takes a deeply human approach to Cassandro, using Saúl’s experience to expose the inherent paradoxes in wrestling traditions without, more importantly, risking exploitation or derision. Here, DP Matías Penachino’s lens is crucial as he takes us behind the scenes to the room where the wrestlers get into costume — reminiscent of a grittier, more subdued version of The Werk Room in RuPaul’s Drag Race — and inside the ring, where we bear witness to the artifice of the matches. Despite the nature of the sport, there isn’t anything stage-y about Cassandro, the hand-held camera work keeping us grounded in Saúl’s story. Between close-ups and centered framing, Saúl is always the focus.

Of course, Cassandro wouldn’t be what it is without the splendid work from costume designer Mariestela Fernández, who crafts a wardrobe that captures the Saúl/Cassandro duality. Especially for Cassandro’s outfits, there’s a perfect balance between extravagant and other-worldly (for that’s who he is), and, as we see him re-purpose his mother’s clothing, grounded and make-shift. After all, Cassandro is a self-made man, working against the odds, rising above tradition, and, like many queer people throughout history, forging his own path in a world that sought to pigeon-hole him.

Cassandro just finished its run at Sundance Film Festival and is expected to stream on Prime Video later this year.



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