Sundance 2023 Review: CASSANDRO Wrestles With Macho Prejudices
Inspired by a true story, director Roger Ross Williams' fiction debut follows an underdog who broke traditions in lucha libre and became a queer icon.
Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler (2008) became the benchmark of wrestling dramas, creating a new formula for a biopic.
Documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams (The Apollo, God Loves Uganda, Life, Animated) picked a wrestling story for his feature-length fiction debut, Cassandro, based on the actual and living figure, American-born Mexican luchador Saúl Armendáriz.
Williams had already done a research and dry run on the wrestler with the short documentary The Man Without A Mask. If Saúl Armendáriz does not ring a bell, it's because he is most prominently known under his stage name Cassandro. Ross' true story comes on the heels of Marie Losier's documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico! (2018).
Losier, however, captures the final act of Saúl Armendáriz's in-ring career as he shifts from the limelight to behind the scenes. Williams and his co-writer David Teague (Life, Animated, Cutie and the Boxer) dig into the origins of a luchador that came to define a new norm in lucha libre.
In a stellar performance, Gael García Bernal (Bad Education, Amores perros, Babel) portrays the eponymous luchador, who came to embrace showmanship to drive a social change. In Williams' rendition, the protagonist works a menial day job, lives with his cheerful and embracing mother, and moonlights as a mole.
The Mole. El Topo, is his nickname as an amateur masked wrestler, performing to a small crowd in a ramshackle car repair shop. El Topo is a jobber, mostly a filler act, but Armendáriz dreams of a better career. The tectonic shift comes after he meets Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) who has already established a reputation for herself as Lady Anarquía in the ring.
Sabrina agrees to train Saúl and suggests that he should embrace his suppressed persona of exotíco. Exotícos are an effeminate type of luchador who serve as living rag dolls, comic relief, and a subject at which the audience can throw a variety of colorful slurs.
While hesitant, Saúl succumbs to the allure of performing in more glamorous outfits and redefining the role of exotícos in the macho society brimming with buckets of testosterone. He espouses a male version of the name of a soap opera character, Cassandra.
Cassandro is a condensed retelling of how Armendáriz beat opponents and prejudices and became a queer icon in the squared circle. Ross and Teague adapt the familiar narrative of an underdog becoming a superstar in an uplifting and motivating story to follow dreams and power through hardships.
That is a perfectly understandable (and marketable) choice which, in its heart follows also The Wrestler; both protagonists are driven by the kind of self-destructive behavior that comes with the territory. And both films and their creators are more thoughtful than to regurgitate inspiring platitudes.
Cassandro wrestles with dilemmas other than Randy "The Ram" Robinson. El Topo's rebirth as Cassandro in the ring doubles as a coming out in an overtly macho and Catholic country. The clandestine relationship Armendáriz has with a closeted married wrestler starts to hit roadblocks as the persona of Cassandro tracts more publicity. Williams' film is a queer drama about the personal struggles a gay man must face in a society fueled by stereotypes and prejudices.
Cassandro steps into the corners that antiseptic Bohemian Rhapsody avoided, though not as boldly, as to not court any controversy. However, both movies have more in common. In a sense, Cassandro is a Bohemian Rhapsody of wrestling. Both films share similar emotional and feel-good rollercoaster emotions, suitable for a mainstream audience.
Williams remains truer to Armendáriz´s personal life than Bohemian Rhapsody was to its protagonist. It is clear, however, that both films are driven by different producers' intent and Bohemian Rhapsody is more of a vehicle for the band's music.
Williams did not opt for a full-blown warts-and-all approach, but Armendáriz´s relationships and hookups are treated more honestly. In this sense, Williams veers more towards Aronofsky's method but does push the pedal to the metal to make the fare a depressive ride into an abyss.
When writing the script, Teague and Williams had to be picky when assembling the storyline since Armendáriz's career has been eventful and his lifestyle bohemian. Cassandro is not a wrestling movie but a movie about wrestling, as most of the story takes place beyond the ropes.
It´s also more of a film inspired by true events than a full-blooded biopic, as the writers took many liberties for fans of Cassandro and lucha libre connoisseurs to notice. Armendáriz started wrestling as masked Mister Romano, took on the exótico character at the suggestion of Babe Sharon, and wrestled unmasked first as Rosa Salvaje.
The stage name he is immortalized now did not come from a soap opera protagonist. as Teague and Williams want us to believe. Instead, it is reportedly adapted from a Tijuana brothel keeper. Cassandro's creators also resorted to a Bohemian Rhapsody-grade sanitization but not so obvious.
The reason for those decisions and creative licenses that withdraw the film's story from the accuracy of Armendáriz´s life story is the intention. In addition to the narrative thread of zero-to-hero ascension, struggle with inner demons, and for an absent father's approval, Cassandro is a sweet monument to Armendáriz's mother, a firecracker who took her son for who he truly was.
Williams and Teague thankfully pushed that scope further and Cassandro turns into a tribute to women. The film is a celebration of women who persist in toxic patriarchalism and discrimination, women who enjoy their life despite social injustices, and women who inspire not only gay men but whatever minority has to pull through any kind of adversity from the major society or deeply-rooted conventions. And Lady Anarquía is another such a woman in Cassandro´s life.
It is a sweet irony that a homosocial film about men grappling with each other is a testament to the rippling effect women can have in a phallocentric society. It was a creative decision that managed to deliver the message without sentimentalism and unrequired moralizing. And it made the film into a Trojan horse of masculinity carrying the celebration of female invisible leverage over society.
The film screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
- Roger Ross Williams
- David Teague
- Roger Ross Williams
- Gael García Bernal
- Roberta Colindrez
- Perla De La Rosa