Bernal is a blast both in and out of the ring in this look at the life of exótico Saúl Armendáriz.

The first time we see Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal) in the wrestling ring, he gets his ass handed to him. Armendáriz is considerably smaller than the wrestler that usually wins the matches in El Paso, but he doesn’t care—he loves being a luchador. When Armendáriz leaves the ring, he isn’t upset about losing, but instead, he’s upset that “there’s no art to it,” that his defeat doesn’t have the flair and excitement that it deserves, thanks to the lack of style from his opponent

But Armendáriz knows how to bring that art to the ring, as he takes on the new identity of Cassandro, an exótico—known for their flamboyant, effete style, and also, never winning matches—whose passion for the sport can be felt. As Cassandro, Armendáriz revitalizes not only wrestling for his viewers, but himself, as he finds more confidence in this character of his own creation.

Cassandro, from director Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated) in his first narrative feature, tells this story of finding success in being true to yourself, and how being open to who you are can revamp your entire worldview. Williams’ doesn’t approach the true story of Armendáriz (whose life was already explored in the 2018 documentary, Cassandro, the Exotica!) like a doc, but rather, jumps right into the ring with the wrestler, and starts at the important decision to be himself in the ring.

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In Cassandro, we watch the title character’s transformation from a zero to a hero, as he trains to become better simply out of his love for the sport. While the audiences might boo and revile him at first, Cassandro wins them over by the end of the match—a sign of his impact and the greatness of his performance. The decision to shift from the wrestler El Topo to the over-the-top Cassandro revitalizes Armendáriz, and shifts the audience to his will. His audiences might question cheering for a gay wrestler, but his ability to be himself and show why that’s such a great thing begins to alter their perspectives on the exótico.

Cassandro is also a great showcase for Bernal, who is having a ball in the title role. Bernal is joyous as Armendáriz, who is beginning to become comfortable with himself, and he’s electric as Cassandro. Bernal is excellent at showing these transformations. At first, he’s thrown around the ring like a rag doll, but through his training and antics, he’s hard to beat. It’s because of Bernal though that his offstage story is as fascinating as the story in the ring, especially when we see Armendáriz sneaking around with his married lover Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), who clearly isn’t as accepting of who he is as Armendáriz is.

Cassandro the wrestler knows how to play a crowd, and knows how to play to their reactions. Similarly, in Cassandro, Williams knows how to play just the right notes. Williams’ story of coming out and acceptance is both riveting and often touching, and Bernal gives quite possibly his best performance in this beautiful story of finding yourself and becoming who you were always supposed to be.

Rating: B

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