Sundance Review: Gael Garcia Bernal Shines as a History-Making Luchador in Cassandro

If director Roger Ross Williams’s (Life, Animated) latest work, Cassandro, had been released last year, I firmly believe that its star, Gael Garcia Bernal would have easily snagged best acting nominations from every major organization giving out awards. Bernal plays Saúl, a gay luchador in the lucha libre wrestling scene of Juárez, Mexico, where he fights as El Topo, a generic, low-grade player whose role is to lose to the more masculine wrestlers.

Tired of feeling like a loser in and out of the ring, Saúl decides to change his character to Cassandro, a character commonly known in the sport as an exótico, a flamboyantly gay character that the audience loves to hate and are allowed to call every homophobic slur in the book. The exóticos don’t wear masks and are some of the most athletic players in the ring, but they also always lose. But Cassandro is so skilled at his work, he captures the hearts and minds of the crowd, and eventually decides he wants to be the first exótico to win a match.

With the help of a fantastic trainer (Roberta Colindrez), a new and somewhat shady promotor (Joaquín Cosio) and his son (Bad Bunny), and the support of his elderly mother (Perla De La Rosa), Cassandro is given a shot at actually winning, and it changes the landscape of the sport entirely. His popularity doesn’t sit well with some, including his closeted lover and fellow luchador Gerardo (Raúl Castillo, The Inspection). But when Cassandro finally works his way up the ranks for a shot at fighting (and possibly beating) the legendary Son of Santo, even Saúl’s long-absent and ashamed father attempts to reconnect with him.

Bernal propels Cassandro into something unexpectedly wonderful. Appearing to do most of his own work in the ring, he manages not only the fight choreography but the sparkling, winning personalty that his character was known to possess. Tapping into his documentary background, first-time fiction director Williams captures the birth of a superstar in the ring. It’s impossible not to fall for this character or this movie.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.