Sundance 2023: Cassandro Movie Review

A still from Cassandro by Roger Ross Williams, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute


Sundance Film Festival Premieres Section/Amazon Studios

Reviewed for by Abe Friedtanzer

Director: Roger Ross Williams

Writer: David Teague & Roger Ross Williams

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Perla de la Rosa, Joaquín Cosío, and Raúl Castillo

Screened at: The Ray, Park City, UT, 1/24/23

Opens: January 20th (World Premiere)

Historically, there have been standards of masculinity and strength that didn’t deviate all that much from culture to culture. If a man didn’t conform to that, they were often ostracized and in some cases severely punished. In the lucha libre wrestling world, the role of the exótico contradicted that typical image, but that was because they were destined to lose so that the crowd could root against them. The incomparable Cassandro changed that, and he deserves his own biography.

Saúl (Gael García Bernal) has always dreamed of being a luchador, and he has managed to accomplish that goal in Juárez, but as El Topo, who wears a mask and never gets to win. Once he meets Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), Saúl gains the confidence to debut the character that has always spoken more to him: Cassandro, who shows his real face, wears makeup, and proudly proclaims his sexuality. His determination to have his exótico win is met with skepticism and anger, but Cassandro exhibits a certain style and showmanship that makes his unlikely journey remarkably possible.

Cassandro is indeed a real figure who is often called the “Liberace of lucha libre.” This origin story takes certain liberties and emphasizes particular personalities, but it’s one that showcases how Saúl went against the grain and created someone who could be an emblem for enthusiasm and positivity for those who felt like they didn’t fit in. Cassandro garners unlikely support from those who see the way he steps into the ring with style and realizes that he may just be capable of turning the audience in favor of a typically unsupported competitor.

Bernal delivers a wondrously lived-in performance as Saúl, who transforms into Cassandro with grace and an unmatched energy. He conveys the deep love he has for his mother (Perla De La Rosa) and the complicated longing he feels for his father, who had another family at the time of his birth and remains perpetually out of reach. He demonstrates most of all how much this sport means to him, and how it can be infinitely more enjoyable and rewarding if he gets to be more like himself. There is pain along the way, particularly as he navigates a relationship with a married man, Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), who isn’t as willing to acknowledge his identity as Saúl.

Roger Ross Williams, an Oscar nominee for directing Life, Animated, makes his narrative directorial debut with this film, and brings a sensitivity and sense of drama to it that might under another filmmaker’s guidance not work as well in concert with each other. This is an enticing adventure on which Williams and Bernal invite audiences, and it’s not one that involves an unnecessary amount of brutality. This is a far cry from The Wrestler, and while Cassandro is not immune to injury, there is an art present that he of all people seeks to emphasize, and that shines through in the depiction of this warm, inviting protagonist whose goal in life is to provide entertainment to others.

Bernal is in good company with the rest of the ensemble. De La Rosa embodies her character’ sown hopes and dreams as someone whose life as not gone the way she planned and who won’t even attend her son’s matches because she’s too worried watching him. Castillo depicts the difficulty of being accepted in a largely homophobic society and the agonizing pull of separate worlds. Colindrez, a memorable supporting player in the TV series A League of Their Own, matches Saúl’s creativity as his supportive trainer. Even those who have no knowledge of or affinity for lucha libre should enjoy this terrific biopic.

109 minutes

Story: B+

Acting: A-

Technical: B+

Overall: B+

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