Producers: Gerardo Gatica, Todd Black, David Bloomenfield, Ted Hope and Julie Goldman  Director: Roger Ross Williams   Screenplay: David Teague and Roger Ross Williams   Cast: Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Perla de la Rosa, Joaquín Cosío, Raúl Castillo, El Hijo del Santo, Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio and Robert Salas   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade: B

A major change in the ultra-macho world of Mexican lucha libre is the subject of Roger Ross Williams’ film based on the life of Saúl Armendáriz, the luchador who revolutionized the attitude toward the grapplers called exóticos not only by becoming a crowd favorite but by winning matches.  For Williams, a veteran documentarian, perhaps best known for “Life, Animated” (2016), who previously made “The Man Without a Mask,” a short profile of the wrestler for The New Yorker Presents (it can be found as one of the segments in episode four of the series, available on Prime Video)—other documentaries on Armendáriz have been made by Michael Ramos Araizaga and Marie Losier—“Cassandro” marks a fiction feature debut.

Traditionally the exóticos were flamboyantly dressed and effeminate figures who served as a focus of macho bigotry and were jeered and ridiculed by the crowds as they were inevitably disposed of by their virile opponents.   Armendáriz gained notice from his first appearance as the exótico called Cassandro by reason of costumes that were even more extravagant than the norm, but especially because of his unapologetically positive personality as an uncloseted gay man and his ability to take on much larger opponents with skill, if not always triumphantly.

Gael García Bernal gives a bravura performance as Armendáriz, displaying a wide smile even in the face of boos from the crowd in outfits that grow ever more elaborate as his celebrity escalates, and handling the ring action with surprising agility.  It’s obvious that he’s having a tremendous time conveying the young Saúl’s obsession with lucha libre when the El Paso native travels to Juárez to perform in small venues as an undersized masked jobber called El Topo, “The Mole” or “The Mouse,” and is regularly thrashed. 

But after he’s trained by expert coach Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), under whose guidance he, reluctantly at first, goes the exótico route as Cassandro (a figure he bases on one of the telenovelas he loves) and finds success in the role, becoming a superstar with help from aggressive promoter Lorenzo (Joaquín Cosío) and Lorenzo’s febrile associate, the drug-dealing Felipe (Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny).        

But the film deals with Armendáriz’s life outside the ring as well as in it, and Bernal is equally fine here.  It focuses on two relationships.  The earlier is with his mother Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), a laundress, seamstress and prostitute, who raised him alone after his religion-obsessed father Eduardo (Robert Salas) abandoned them in revulsion at the boy’s effeminacy.  They’re extraordinarily close, and he adopts her fashion sense in developing his Cassandro persona; and when she suddenly dies, he’s crushed.  The other is with fellow luchador Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), with whom he enjoys a steamy affair; it has to remain secret, however, since Gerardo, who wrestles as El Comandante, is married, and refuses to injure his family by coming out as Saúl has done.  But that doesn’t stop him from being jealous when Saúl and Felipe appear to hit it off.

Inevitably, the film, which has employed actual lucha libre performers like El Gigante, in the periodic fight scenes, ends splashily, with the ostentatiously frocked Cassandro facing off against an icon, the seemingly invincible El Hijo del Santo (playing himself).  An arguably bathetic coda finds Armendáriz appearing on the star luchador’s television program, where he’s presented with evidence of the cultural impact he’s had in attitudes about homosexuality in contrast to Eduardo’s intractability.  (In reality, Armendáriz enjoyed a halting rapprochement with his father—as shown in the New Yorker episode; its omission here seems a bit curious.)   

Though Bernal dominates the proceedings, the supporting cast is very strong, with De La Rosa, Colindrez and Castillo drawing particularly sharp portraits of their characters, even if they’re necessarily less developed than Armendáriz.  J.C. Molina’s production design doesn’t prettify the surroundings, and Matías Penachino’s cinematography keeps the colors muted except when Maristela Fernández’s entrance costumes for Cassandro take center stage.  The film is spiffily edited by Affonso Gonçalves, Sabine Hoffman, Yibrán Asuad, but they make a point of not turning the ring action into a blinding cacophony even has they capture its innate theatricality.  Marcelo Zarvos’ score reflects the differing emotional tones of the wrestling sequences and the intimate ones, and incorporates some rousing pop numbers for Cassandro’s entrances.

It’s inevitable that the film, which emphasizes the triumph of the underdog against all odds, tends to skim over the darker undertones of Armendáriz’s career (his injuries, for example; even his teeth don’t seem to suffer), as well as of the social context of the 1980s and 1990s, when he found unexpected fame and popularity but the general attitude toward gay men when the AIDS epidemic, minimized here, was so virulent.  Its emphasis on the positive side, like Armendáriz’s own as shown in his interviews, is pervasive.

But while one can criticize the film for not tackling the edgier aspects of Armendáriz’s life and times, as a pure underdog (or undermole) story it’s a winner.