Gael Garcia Bernal Shines as Trailblazing Luchador

Gael García Bernal nails his greatest position in years, giving a efficiency steeped in cheeky humor, resilience and radical self-belief — to not point out some amazingly nimble strikes — as groundbreaking lucha libre wrestler Saúl Armendáriz in Cassandro. Seasoned documentarian Roger Ross Williams, who profiled Armendáriz in 2016 for the Amazon collection The New Yorker Presents, makes an assured transition into narrative options with this entertaining biopic, which doubles as a stunning depiction of mother-son love and an exhilarating exploration of fearless queer id in a macho setting.

Whereas Williams (Life, Animated) and co-screenwriter David Teague (who tailored Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World and Me for HBO) barely fumble the ending, it is a movie with huge coronary heart, vivid immersion into its culturally particular milieu and celebratory admiration for its flamboyant topic, pictures of whom each out and in of the ring grace the top credit. It ought to show common with each LGBTQ viewers and common audiences when it begins streaming worldwide on Amazon early this yr.


The Backside Line

A punchy little knockout.

Venue: Sundance Movie Competition (Premieres)
Forged: Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Perla de la Rosa, Joaquín Cosío, Raúl Castillo, El Hijo del Santo, Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Screenwriters: David Teague, Roger Ross Williams

1 hour 49 minutes

Proper off the bat, the director, cinematographer Matías Penachino, manufacturing designer J.C. Molina and costumer Mariestela Fernández present an alluring glimpse into this very specific world of sport as theatrical spectacle, attended by rowdy crowds that suppose nothing of yelling homophobic taunts on the luchadors.

That makes Bernal’s Saúl a determine of defiant pleasure because the American-born Mexican swaggers down the streets of border city Ciudad Juárez, the place he frequently crosses from El Paso to take part in lucha libre, or freestyle wrestling, bouts. He reveals no concern for hiding his sexuality, in contrast to his married boyfriend and fellow luchador Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), who fights as El Comandante. We be taught that Saúl got here out at 15, inflicting the estrangement of his non secular father Eduardo (Robert Salas), who had maintained a semi-clandestine relationship along with his mom Yocasta (Perla de la Rosa) regardless of being married.

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Seemingly due to his diminutive dimension in comparison with the hulking brutes he goes up towards, Saúl wrestles as El Topo (the mouse). However he’s annoyed by the shortage of poetry in his heavyweight opponents and the rote expectation that he’ll lose every struggle, reconfirming the bodily supremacy of the hyper-masculine neanderthal. That adjustments when he forges a reference to a brand new coach, Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), identified on the lucha circuit as “Woman Anarquía.” She suggests there’s multiple method to struggle with out being the runt, suggesting he attempt competing as an “exótico,” or drag wrestler.

Saúl doesn’t take a lot convincing. Drawing inspiration from Mexican actress Verónica Castro, in addition to from his mom’s style for industrial-strength make-up and flashy animal-print outfits, he creates Cassandro, taking his new skilled title from a favourite telenovela.

From the second Cassandro enters the ring to Celia Cruz’s Spanish-language “I Will Survive” cowl, it’s clear {that a} star is born. Not like a number of the extra flouncy-looking exóticos, who’re strictly figures of enjoyable, Cassandro stays an unapologetically homosexual man, milking energy from the viewers’s slurs as his skill within the ring turns catcalls into cheers.

Cassandro loses his first struggle towards the aptly named Gigantico (one in every of a handful of real-life lucha stars within the movie), however his ability at going a number of extremely aggressive rounds with an opponent twice his dimension earns him respect. It additionally will get the eye of shady promoter Lorenzo (Joaquín Cosío), who assigns his good-looking younger henchman Felipe (Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio, higher often called Puerto Rican rapper Unhealthy Bunny) to see to Saúl’s wants. This yields some pleasurable flirtation.

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What offers the film — and Bernal’s fantastic efficiency — such an infectious kick is the best way Cassandro’s confidence grows, alongside along with his jubilant theatricality and the flowery glitz of his wrestling outfits, but additionally the best way it informs how Saúl presents himself out on the earth. In a single little bit of usually mischievous dialogue throughout some post-coital pillow speak with Gerardo, he describes Cassandro as somebody fairly completely different from himself: “I believe Cassandro is perhaps a prime.”

Whereas that relationship is constrained by its secrecy, the scenes between Bernal and the always-terrific Castillo are smolderingly horny in addition to melancholy. Saúl desperately needs an official boyfriend, however Gerardo refuses to interrupt up his household, although not with out remorse and longing.

The opposite key relationship that provides Cassandro its luminous heat is between Saúl and Yocasta, who’s virtually extra of a drag sister than a mom. Their closeness is clear in each intimate second they share, glad or unhappy. Whereas she has all the time averted going to his lucha fights for worry of seeing him damage, she begins attending as soon as Cassandro is born, pleasure spreading throughout her beautiful face as he wraps the group round his little finger. The camaraderie between Saúl and Sabrina, who reads as queer even when her sexuality isn’t acknowledged, offers their allegiance one other layer of solidarity.

It’s notable that Bernal’s chemistry with all three of those important figures in Saúl’s life — superbly performed by Castillo, De la Rosa and Colindrez — is straightforward, pure and drawn with love. The emotional depth of his efficiency is equaled by its transformative physicality. The actor is in improbable form, compact and stocky, stuffed with speedy strikes as he bounces off the ropes or the mat like a human pinball. Bernal additionally captures a basic a part of the Cassandro persona within the radiant joie de vivre he finds as a performer.

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Teague and Williams’ script is barely weaker in exploring a central battle, as soon as Cassandro turns into a subversive drive, flipping the carved-in-stone lucha bylaw that claims the effeminate exótico all the time has to lose to the “actual man.” This facet made Armendáriz a revolutionary determine within the sport — and in queer athletic empowerment — but it surely ruffled feathers among the many historically macho rivals. As depicted right here, it quantities to a little bit of murmured resentment, foreshadowing drama that doesn’t arrive.

That is additionally a type of movies wherein there are two or three completely different factors that appear like ideally suited endings, considerably diluting the poignancy of all of them. However that doesn’t make the general takeaway any much less satisfying.

The climactic struggle takes place in a packed Mexico Metropolis stadium, with Saúl dealing with off towards El Hijo del Santo (Son of Santo), a celebrated champion whose father was a legendary lucha star earlier than him. There’s private significance additionally in Saúl’s reminiscences of watching matches that includes the unique Santo on TV along with his father as a younger boy. A scene late within the movie wherein Saúl is a visitor on Son of Santo’s speak present and a teenage viewers member reveals that the wrestler’s braveness impressed him to come back out to his father is a little bit apparent however shifting nonetheless.

Williams’ documentary background breathes grit and authenticity into the setting, as do the wealthy textures of Penachino’s pictures, significantly the frequent night time scenes. And fabulous classic bangers like Blondie’s “Name Me” and Baccara’s “Sure Sir, I Can Boogie” flip Cassandro’s grand entrances into moments of triumph even earlier than the fights start. Armendáriz served as a guide on the movie; its makers have finished him proud.



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