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Writers David Teague, Roger Ross Williams fashion a loving portrait of a gay athlete and pioneer Saúl Armendáriz with their new film Cassandro that enjoyed a recent premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. portrayed with expected tenderness by Gael García Bernal, who also serves as a producer, Cassandro is the story of an outsider who finds his path to glory despite seemingly insurmountable odds. The story is one we have seen before but one that is worthy of consideration owing to its message of perseverence and Bernal’s empassioned performance.

The film opens as Saúl crosses from El Paso into a Mexican border town to perform as luchador, El Topo. After yet another match ending in defeat, Saúl decides to develop a new persona. Seeking the training of local wrestling coach Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), it becomes apparent that Saul should embrace who is is and perform as an Exotico. Dressing in drag and trapsing around the ring as a gay sterotype, Exoticos are often the target of jokes and defeat. However, Saúl wants to be a symbol of empowerment.
Rising through the ranks Saúl meets smarmy, yet sympathetic businessman Lorenzo (Joaquín Cosio) who sees the potential to build an empire with this new character.

In the face of the toxic masculinity rampant in the wrestling world Cassandro defies the odds and begins to command respect and a following. All the while though, his private life is another struggle. Raised by a single mother as his father’s nasty secret, Saúl struggles to prove himself to the world. Making matters worse, Saúl is in love with married wrestler Gerardo (Raúl Castillo) who also treats him like a hidden shame.

Co-writer and director Roger Ross Williams crafts an intimate protrait of a lonely icon. While the script hits the quick personal moments well, there is a certain lack of build up to the major moments of Cassandro’s trailblaizing career. We understand he is lonely, ridiculed, and pelted with homophoic epethits every time he enters the ring. We get it that he will never be able to openly love the man that he sleeps with behind closed doors when the family is away. We even see that Saúl is fighting to be a part of a world that would rather use him as a punching bag than celebrate him as a hero. But aside from seeing these conditions, nothing much seems to really get in the way of Saúl’s dreams of stardom.

This is Bernal‘s movie through and through. His nuanced performance as Saúl Armendáriz fills in the seemingly unwritten textures of Armendáriz’s real life struggles. He carries the movie on his facial expressions alone, but thankfully there are other remarkable performances thorughout including Colindrez’s Sabrina who is a stalwart coach and friend.

A worthy celebration of a gay icon and pioneer, Cassandro plays it safe but still tells an inspiring story.

Cassandro – 7/10