‘Cassandro’ a slamming biopic of lucha libre star

How can you resist a film featuring a cast member named Murder Clown and a character known as Masked Massacre? Welcome to the rowdy, colorful, LBGTQ-friendly (sort of) world of lucha libre. In this uniquely Mexican wrestling phenomenon, the most macho fighters might find themselves in the ring with an “exotico,” aka a cross-dressing, supposedly gay (although mostly straight in fact) opponent. The trouble is, once upon a time, “exoticos” were never allowed to win, until one genuinely gay “exotico” named Cassandro (Gael Garcia Bernal, “Mozart in the Jungle”) set out to change that.

Based on the engrossing, true story of Saul Armendariz aka Cassandro, “Cassandro” was directed by Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams (the short “Music by Prudence”) with Garcia Bernal as executive producer and Armendariz as consultant. The film’s fictional Saul lives in late 1980s El Paso, TX, with his beloved mother Yocasta (a superb Perla de la Rosa), who takes in laundry and seamstress work (Saul helps). Yocasta often takes her annoyed adult son to a baseball field, where his father serves as an umpire. Saul, whose father was married to another woman when he was born, washes and waxes cars when he isn’t in nearby, across-the-border Juarez, making a few dollars fighting in the ring as El Topo. Saul, who came out when he was 15, is attracted to a fellow fighter named Gerardo aka El Comandante (another impressive turn by Raul Castillo, “The Inspection”), who has a wife and family. Saul wants to switch roles in the ring and become the “first exotico to win.”

He doesn’t win his first fight against the man mountain named Gigantico (the aforementioned Clown). But he does toss the big guy around a bit and the get the better of him, briefly. Most importantly, Cassandro begins to win over the audience, which had started out by chanting a homophobic slur at him. Soon, they are cheering “Ca-san-dro” as the much smaller man holds his own against Gigantico. A promoter named Lorenzo (a slyly fabulous Joaquin Cosio, “Quantum of Solace”) gets wind of this different rising star “exotico” and forms a partnership with the eager young fighter.

“Cassandro” is a fictionalized take on the life of the real Cassandro. The core of the film is the relationship between Saul and his mother, who never marries because she is still hopelessly in love with Saul’s father. The love between mother and son is a bright light shining off the screen, and (the arguably slightly too old) Bernal and de la Perla are wonderful to behold in the roles. As Sabrina aka Lady Anarquia, Roberta Colindrez (“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) is another one of this film’s casting delights. Are you ready for Bad Bunny as a “straight” young man who gets into a clinch with Cassandro? As Saul’s father, Robert Salas also just slams it.

As an entertaining, semi-true story about a gay, Mexican-American, mama’s boy trying to change the way the world perceives him, “Cassandro” is a genuine winner with a basketful of flamboyant wrestling-ring costume changes. Saul wants to show the world what he can do. Director and co-writer Williams, making his feature debut, does a remarkable job, giving “Cassandro” something money cannot buy: a heart the size of Texas.

(“Cassandro” contains profanity, simulated sex, drug use and other sexually suggestive scenes)


Rated R. At the Coolidge Corner Theater and Landmark Kendall Square. Grade: A-

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