I’ve been a fan of Gael Garcia Bernal (Y tu mamá también, “Mozart in the Jungle”, No)  for a very long time. I love that he tackles such a wide variety of roles and does them all exceedingly well.  In the based on a true story film Cassandro he plays Saúl Armendáriz a.k.a. the Liberace of Lucha Libre, a gay Mexican-American wrestler who turned the tables on the macho sport and rose to be an international star. Roger Ross Williams, Oscar nominee for Life, Animated, makes his narrative directorial debut with this feel-good flick that is held together by Bernal’s heartfelt and giddy performance.

If you’ve never watched lucha libre wrestling, and I’ll admit to being new to the genre, the gist is that there are three basic characters.  Technicos are the good guys who usually win. Rudos are the bad guys who sometime win by cheating. And then there are the Exoticos. They are usually the comic relief, dressed in drag and taunted by the audience, and mostly straight men. They do wrestle competently with the others, but the cardinal rule is:  they NEVER win.

Saul is living with his mother Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa) in El Paso, working in his free time as a masked Rudo named El Topo. He isn’t really getting anywhere with his wrestling career, but then he meets trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) and ups his game. And one night at a return match against a big star named Gigantico, he decides to reinvent himself as an Exotico named Cassandro. But not just any Exotico. One who is the hero, the winner! He walks out to the ring unmasked, decked out in a leopard print leotard as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” plays to the crowd. And despite the initial boos and homophobic taunts, he turns that crowd into a sea of fans!

The film tells his story both in the ring and in his life. His family life is pretty sad. His love life is not the most satisfying. But in the ring he becomes a force. And there are some very funny bits with him flaunting his gay persona there. Sadly though, the biggest problem I had with the film are those wrestling matches. The choreography just doesn’t make them all that exciting or explain his celebrity. I worked a while back on a wrestling show and matches themselves are supposed to have stories, ups and downs that draw the audience in. The matches in this film are way too dull for this story.

Of course the reason to see this film is Gael Garcia Bernal. He is fabulous as the gay man who really was brave to have been out and proud at the time this took place (late 80s-early 90s) in the macho culture he lived and worked in. And it did make me look the real Cassandro up and read his whole much more interesting story. Cassandro is streaming on Amazon, so no need to run to the theater.

In theaters now. On Amazon beginning Sept. 22) 

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