It is hard to categorize “Cassandro” alongside other biopics. It tells the story of a luchador who changed the part an “exotico” wrestler (basically a wrestler who wears drag) could play. Luchadors, much like WWE wrestlers, are athletes as well as performers. The real Cassandro, AKA Saúl Armendáriz, was a dynamic fighter with a memorable outgoing persona, both of which were crucial to his success. Thus “Cassandro” cannot simply tell a sports story or an entertainer’s story. It has to stretch the biopic mold. This, in combination with an outstanding cast and director, allowed me to put aside my anti-biopic prejudice and thoroughly enjoy “Cassandro.”
Most movies released by major studios were made with some care—no matter how they may turn out, but there is something about “Cassandro” that makes it clear that the creators loved what they were making. This movie is far prettier than it needed to be. Lucha libre is a colorful sport that relies on costumes and aesthetics. “Cassandro” captures this, not just through Cassandro’s outfits, but through its cinematography. Every scene looks good, no matter what is being portrayed, the lighting, the shot composition, the set dressing, everything looks interesting and pretty. To a point where viewers who do not tend to notice cinematographic choices must notice how cinematic this movie looks. This cushioning by the cinematography also provides more wiggle room in terms of pacing. It doesn’t hurt the movie to move through scenes slowly because the background by itself is nice to look at. The music also helps with this. The soundtrack combination of popular American songs of the era, Spanish covers of those popular songs and fun atmospheric instrumental pieces works for the entire movie and further bolsters the cinematography.
Now, it would be wrong for me not to admit that I only watched this movie because of my love of Gael García Bernal, who plays the titular Cassandro. Obviously many factors led to me loving this movie, but he got me in the door. Bernal is a fantastic actor who has been in dozens of movies and TV shows I highly recommend (everyone should watch “Y Tu Mama Tambien”), but he is really outstanding as Cassandro. Every actor in this movie is great—is it clear yet how much I love this movie? A lot is covered throughout “Cassandro,” so the subtleties in characters and their relationships need to be clear through two or three conversations. The movie more than succeeds at this. No plotline failed to make me emotionally invested in what was going on and all of the main characters have memorable and interesting personalities.
The story told in “Cassandro” is yet another place it stands out. It is far too easy for the biopic of a famous gay man to be told as a series of tragedies and mistakes alongside a story of success. “Cassandro” has its fair share of low moments but specifically Cassandro’s sexuality is never what holds him back. This movie goes into his drug use, his relationship with a married man, his estranged father’s homophobia and all within extremely Catholic communities of Mexico and Texas. But he never is never shown to be ashamed of his sexuality; he does not even hide it. Cassandro leaves his face uncovered when he fights, which is not a standard trait of luchadors, never mind luchadors that wear skimpy leotards and make allusions to gay sex. All the while that Cassandro allows himself to be an archetypal gay man, the people around him do not punish him for doing so. It is not admirable that he is sleeping with a married man, but that plotline is far more about infidelity than it is about shame over gayness. A few threats are levied at the beginning of the movie, but outside of a whole lot of chanting the f-slur, Cassandro faces no violent bigotry.
This is important in a queer story. A biopic should show the truth of someone’s life, but just because they faced adversity as a result of their identity, the adversity to be overcome does not have to be their identity. In “Cassandro,” the crowds must come to terms with the wrestler’s sexuality; he doesn’t.
Clearly, I recommend “Cassandro” to anyone for whom it sounds at all interesting. It seems fans of lucha libre are less impressed with the movie, but my entire knowledge of that culture can be tied to WWE and “Nacho Libre,” so that is not a perspective I can speak to. This is a well-told compelling story that beautifully walks the line between feel-good, inspirational and informative historical drama.