Greetings again from the darkness. One of the possible indicators that a movie is well done and interesting is when it draws you in despite having no similarities to the world you live in. I was transfixed by this film from writer-director Roger Ross Williams (Oscar winner for MUSIC BY PRUDENCE, 2009 short) and co-writer David Teague. I am not Hispanic, have no affinity for wrestling, am not gay, and don’t wear makeup or do drugs or crave attention … all part of Saul’s life in this terrific little film.
The always outstanding Gael Garcia Bernal gives a top-notch performance as Saul Armendáriz who transforms into the titular Cassandro, an Exotico luchrador in the colorful world of Lucha libre (Mexican wrestling). Tradition says Exoticos take a beating in the ring while being subjected to the rowdy crowd’s homophobic slurs screamed at maximum vocal volume. But Saul, who took his performance name Cassandro from a soap opera, has a vision where he body slams tradition, and periodically wins matches while simultaneously winning over the crowd.
Saul and his mother (Perla De La Rosa) have a tight bond, one developed after Saul’s dad left home rather than accept his son who had come out as gay. We watch as Saul’s skill and notoriety improve thanks to his trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) and promoter Lorenzo (Joaquin Cosio). In this world, unique relationships develop, and we see Saul with both fellow wrestler Gerardo (Raul Castillo) and Lorenzo’s right-hand man Felipe (Bad Bunny). Ever-present is the cloud of ‘daddy issues’ that Saul carries, and we do wonder if the situation with his religious and closed-minded father (Robert Salas) will be resolved.
There is an odd cadence to the story’s progression, and a few times it feels like the script skips through some important moments, while dwelling on some lesser scenes. Examples of this include Cassandro’s climb to fame and an awkward talk show appearance where he is treated as a role model by a gay youngster. Still, the performance from Gael Garcia Bernal is so strong and charming … his face truly lights up while in the ring … that we can imagine on our own how he climbed the ladder of Lucha libre, as he instills in us the message of being who you are and staying true to yourself. All of this is complemented by a terrific score from Brazilian composer Marcelo Zarvos, who excels in the use of the trumpet here.
Opening in theaters on September 15, 2023 and on Prime Video beginning September 22.
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