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Cassandro Review: Gael Garcia Bernal dazzles in exasperatingly by-the-book biopic

The queer icon needed a film braver and freer than this watered-down biopic

3/5rating
Cassandro Review: Gael Garcia Bernal dazzles in exasperatingly by-the-book biopic

Last Updated: 01.17 PM, Sep 24, 2023

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Story: In Roger Ross Williams’ directorial, Gael Garcia Bernal essays the legendary real-life American-born Mexican luchador exotico wrestler, Cassandro, charting the birth and ascent of the trailblazing queer icon who challenged and shook the rigidly macho world of lucha libre.

Review: Early in Cassandro, someone remarks that the wrestling ring offers a brief moment of escape, in its reassurance of the good trumping evil. Historically, it was ensured the exotico wrestlers, men who cross dressed as women in these elaborate, gorgeous costumes, were guaranteed to lose to their aggressively, assertively masculine rivals, as the audiences railed a volley of homophobic slurs. So, when Saul’s trainer, Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) suggests he could try being an exotico, he rebuts her that exoticos don’t win. What gradually unfolds in the film is a reconfiguration of victory and the traditionally cemented notions of the wrestling ring. When Saul rises to the ring, rechristened as Cassandro, the rules of the game get rewritten. He might be defeated inside the ring but wins the hearts of the audiences with his grand charisma, oozing immense theatricality.

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The film follows Saul’s journey of acceptance and self-realisation, as he rejects his former moustachioed self and embraces his Cassandro avatar, utterly dazzling in its pomp. It is an avatar with bits gleaned from a famous Mexican telenovela and a popular actress; Saul pieces them together into his show-stopping exotico incarnation.

Yet, the film cannot resist succumbing to the trappings of a standard biopic. While it is impossible not to cheer as Cassandro ascends to the ring, buoyed by crowds of whooping and hooting admirers all roaring his name, Marcelo Zarvos’s electrifying, pulsating score amping up the energy, there are niggling problems with the screenplay that increasingly become outsized. Inexplicably, it tends to critically skip a major chunk of Cassandro’s journey. For a film that is centred on carving liberation out of oppression and prejudice, this strikes as a baffling decision. It riffs on the glory but papers over what must have been an incredibly adverse road to empowerment. Once the promoters gauge Cassandro’s magnetism, dynamism, and indelible crowd-pleasing appeal, they are quick to cash in on it and crown him as the rising star of lucha libre. But the film side-steps how Cassandro solidified his ascent to stardom in an obviously harsh landscape, relegating it to a mere, uninspired montage of highlights.

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While the film leaves such obviously momentous sections out, it carefully draws the central relationship between Saul and his mother, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa). In one of the final scenes, Saul talks of how his mother had the single most galvanising influence in his life and shares how he was raised by women, who shaped what he is today and how he wants to be.

Saul’s childhood is softly threaded into the fabric of the narrative. These flashbacks depict his relationship with his mother and father. His childhood was a deeply tumultuous one yet the inherent emotional violence and resentment cooped within him toward his father for tossing away his mother on his whim, since he happened to be married and with kids, is elided. Yocasta brought up Saul pretty much on her own, disappearing into the night as a sex worker. Despite her mistreatment, Yocasta remains deeply attached to her husband and Saul tells her he knows he is the sole reason why he is no longer in their lives. Saul’s father abandoned them when he came out and never resumed any contact. De La Rosa and Bernal capture the mother-son track with profound, poignant ache. De La Rosa powers this with deep reserves of love and powerfully beating emotion. When Saul tells his mother he wants to be an exotico, his mother is initially apprehensive, aware of the personal risk that accompanied the intense homophobia that surrounds them. Yocasta is always encouraging of her son’s sexual choices, riffing on with good humour aplenty but is unable to mask her concern for the precarity vested in being an exotico . However, when a nervous Yocasta shows up at one of the lucha libre matches and senses the overwhelming exaltation that her son is able to generate amidst everyone, the swell of support in his favour, she is most ecstatic and in that fleeting instant Ross Williams and De Ra Losa are able to convey a mother’s pride in seeing her son flourish. Saul is driven in his journey to make it bigger as an exotico because he wants a nice place where he can live with his mother. It does not take a seasoned viewer to guess where this track is heading but Bernal imbues even the most predictably conceived scenes with a crippling sense of loss and grief.

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The film also touches on the circularity of choices, between the mother and son, as Saul similarly struggles to fully extricate himself from a clearly doomed liaison with Gerardo (Raul Castillo), a wrestler married and with kids. Bernal brilliantly alternates between Saul’s emotional vulnerability and Cassandro’s glorious exhibitionism; the way Cassandro plays to the gallery, taking in the loud cheer while dialling up an uninhibited sense of seduction in the ring never slips into shallow antics, thanks to the actor’s meticulous hold over the art of charisma, while rocking the leopard print leotards. Even as the film questionably trims how Saul builds his confidence in fully channelling Cassandro, it is Bernal who manages to make us perceive the urgent essence of the exotico’s showboating.

Verdict: While Cassandro does have intermittent flashes of authenticity and sincerity, a lot of the queer icon’s journey and the travails he must have experienced in honing his cult reputation is glossed over. Fortunately, the real heart of Cassandro’s art, the dramatic entrances to the matches set to bangers like Baccara’s Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, his nimble leaps and teasingly playing around with his rivals, translates spectacularly, in Gael Garcia Bernal’s utterly enthralling performance.

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