Film Review: “Cassandro” — The Exótico as Champion
By Sarah Osman
Cassandro, directed by Robert Ross Williams.
Watching Cassandro become the “Liberace of Luchadors” is enthralling in itself, but we are also given the drama of seeing the protagonist wrestle with his own personal demons.
In 1941, one of the first exóticos climbed into the ring at Arena Mexico. Dizzy “Gardenia” Davis strutted down the aisle, throwing gardenias to the crowd. His ground-breaking appearance inspired many of the traits associated with the now-familiar persona: a mix of campy physical vocabulary with feminine costumes (such as feather boas and sequins). “Gardenia” served as an entertaining foil to the standard-issue hyper machismo luchadors. “Gardenia” was a clown, setting the pattern for the exóticos who would follow. Crowds taunted them with homophobic slurs and they were never winners. They also never revealed their sexuality — an exótico was an early form of performance art. It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that the idea of what the persona could be changed.
Director Roger Ross Williams tells the compelling story of one of these key transformative exóticos in Cassandro. We first see Saul Armendariz, aka Cassandro (Gael Garcia Bernal, who gives a flawless performance), as a struggling luchador in the mid-’80s. Every weekend he crossed the border from El Paso to Juarez where he wrestled as “El Topo,” only to be inevitably mercilessly tossed around and about the ring by his foe, Gigantico. During the day, Armendariz, helped his mother, Yocasta (Perla de la Rosa), with her laundry business. It wasn’t until he meets up with trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) that he realizes he could be more than the runt of the wrestling litter — he could be a champion.
Armendariz reinvents himself as Cassandro, a name fashioned after a telenovela star (Kassandra). We see him trying out his new strategy: draped in a tight scarlet shirt, booty shorts, and red lipstick, Cassandro hesitantly steps out in the ring with a Spanish version of Gloria Gaynor’s anthem “I Will Survive” playing in the background. Bernal perfectly conveys Armendariz’s initial panic — was this a terrible mistake? But the second the wrestler hears the jeers of the crowd, Armendariz’s transformation into Cassandro is complete. This exótico struts with conviction into the ring and nimbly plays off of Gigantico’s self-defeating homophobia — and the fans love it. Cassandro proves that exoticos are not merely jokes — they can be entertaining winners too.
Watching Cassandro become the “Liberace of Luchadors” is enthralling in itself, but we are also given the drama of seeing Armendariz wrestle with his own personal demons. The most compelling of his challenges is his affair with a married luchador, Gerardo (Raul Castillo), who lacks Armendariz’s bravery. In one of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes, Armendariz realizes they can never become a couple
At the same time, Armendariz sympathizes with his mother as she watches his father from afar. She never married Armendariz’s father, a fact that haunts mother and son. The successful exótico has to deal with painful memories of being confronted with his mother yearning for what could have been. And her insistence that Armendariz’s gayness is the reason his father rejected him. This dramatic thread is the least successful in Cassandro, perhaps because the conflict is more about the failed dreams of Armendariz’s mother. His mother is the one who is tormented by the past and what could have been. Armendariz is breaking free. That explains why, when the exótico and his father confront one another, it’s not nearly as poignant as it should be.
There are plenty of refreshing merits in Cassandro. One welcome departure from most sports films is the lack of uplifting training montages. There are no Rocky-esque moments here; the second Armendariz becomes Cassandro, we revel in his gender-bending success. And the key to this accomplishment is Bernal’s marvelous performance; with astonishing ease, he makes nuanced emotional moves as well as flamboyant turns in the ring. He embodies the performative spirit of the exótico — joyously liberated.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman