HomeEntertainmentReview | ‘Cassandro’: Lucha libre biopic gives its subject a bear hug

Review | ‘Cassandro’: Lucha libre biopic gives its subject a bear hug

(2.5 stars)

You’d think a biopic about a gay wrestler — especially one dubbed the Liberace of lucha libre, as the freestyle, mask-wearing sport/entertainment is known in Mexico — would be full of razzle-dazzle and pizazz. But director Roger Ross Williams, who has primarily worked as a documentary filmmaker (albeit for such fabulous subjects as Donna Summer), doesn’t strong-arm his true-life subject in “Cassandro” so much as give him a big bear hug.

When we meet the protagonist Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal), he’s wrestling on the amateur circuit under the name El Topo (“The Mole,” a moniker that resonates with the title of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 psychedelic midnight-movie classic). In the ring with the much larger El Gigantico, El Topo tries to encourage his opponent to put on a show for the meager crowd, but the bigger man simply goes through the crude paces, exerting his brawn over the scrawny Saúl.

“That guy has no poetry,” Saúl complains afterward. But how can a diminutive performer like himself possibly dominate in this he-man competition? Sure, there are “exoticos”: flamboyant, effeminate male wrestlers who perform in a kind of Greco-Roman drag. But they’re never allowed to win. Can Saúl change this dynamic?

To that end, he teams up with trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) to get into better shape. But perhaps more importantly, a telenovela inspires him to develop the persona of Cassandro, an exotico with a couple of differences. For one, he’s unmasked. What’s more: He wins.

Bernal shines in his role, bringing out all of Saúl’s vulnerability, especially in his tender relationship with his mother (Perla De La Rosa), who runs a laundry service by day — Saúl helps by mending clothes — and turns tricks by night. Mom accepts Saúl’s sexuality but is worried about the dangers he might face. (Other than the epithets shouted at him in the arena, which for the most part spur him to try harder, we never see him in physical danger.)

At times, Bernal’s performance conjures up two very different actors, aptly both comedians: Robin Williams and Lucille Ball. Before he finds his voice as Cassandro, Saúl is especially eager to please the people around him, and that’s when you see a bit of Williams. In full flower, as it were, the beaming Cassandro suggests a beauty like Ball, leveraging her looks and gift for physical comedy.

That physical comedy is a large part of how Cassandro defeats wrestlers who tower over him, disarming them just by being himself. For instance, when El Gigantico holds him in a waist lock, Cassandro takes those violent hands and runs them over his body. It’s hilarious, and typical of the theatrical flair that draws audiences to all forms of professional wrasslin’.

If this sounds like a variation on the Rocky template, it is. But the script, which Roger Ross Williams co-wrote with David Teague, doesn’t lean into the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. Thanks to muted photography by Matias Penachino, much of the film has the shallow-focus gauze of a low-budget drama. The production values get snazzier as Cassandro’s star rises, which suggests an interesting subtext: The lucha libre promoters who might have dismissed him learn to accept him when they realize they can use his sexuality to make money.

Much like the highly choreographed machinations of a WWE smackdown, “Cassandro” does seem to pull punches. There are whole worlds only hinted at, such as the desperation of a middle-aged mother who has to resort to prostitution. And while the world of lucha libre does look like a seedy business, it also feels whitewashed in this arty production. A final inspirational note falls into the standard biopic tropes. But all this sporting entertainment turns out to be an unexpectedly mellow affair of the heart, with Bernal completely winning you over.

R. At area theaters; available Sept. 22 on Prime Video. Contains strong language, drug use and sexuality. 107 minutes.

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