Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams won an Academy Award for his documentary work, so his narrative debut, the biopic Cassandro, was highly anticipated in this year’s Sundance lineup. Although the film has some moments that feel overly conventional, Williams’s keen eye as a director makes it memorable nonetheless.
The movie tells the story of amateur luchador Saúl Armendáriz, who rises through the ranks of the Mexican lucha libre circuit and to international stardom after forming an “exotico” personality by the name of Cassandro. Sports biopics are a dime a dozen, but lucha libre is the type of niche sport underrepresented within the genre, allowing it to be somewhat distinctive even in its familiarity.
The biggest success of the film, without a doubt, is its visual style. Costume designer María Estela Fernández does an extraordinary job capturing the colorful and flamboyant world of lucha libre. Just as impressive is how Williams shoots the lucha scenes themselves, with a visual kineticism that lends the movie a great deal of energy.
It’s nice to see a biopic that so openly addresses the identity of an LGBTQIA+ icon. Although the film otherwise sticks to the standard, traditional beats of the biopic genre, it engages so deeply with the subject’s identity and his role in the LGBTQIA+ community, allowing it to stand out.
Gael Garcia Bernal’s performance in the leading role is nothing short of exquisite. Bernal plays the role in a way that never feels like a caricature. It’s a balance that is undeniably challenging to pull off, given that Cassandro’s persona is all about his flamboyance, but Bernal manages to capture that while still keeping in touch with the core humanity of the role.
That being said, the movie does struggle with going beyond the external challenges faced by the character. We see a lot of how others in the lucha libre community attempt to hold Cassandro back, and it’s inspiring to see him overcome the odds to achieve success and fame, but it would have been worthwhile to see how this affected him on a more personal level.
Perhaps most disappointing, though, is how it largely wastes its supporting cast. Raúl Castillo has the most prominent supporting role, playing another luchador who enters into a relationship with Bernal’s Cassandro. Unfortunately, he is absent for significant stretches of the film, yet Castillo has too strong of a presence to feel insignificant. Reggaeton superstar Bad Bunny also has a bit part, but seems there for the name recognition more than anything else.
Cassandro benefits from strong direction and an amazing lead performance, elevating it beyond its occasionally standard approach to the genre. Hopefully people remember this biopic well into the year, as it is sure to compare favorably to plenty of other biopics focusing on more mainstream figures.
Cassandro is playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 19-29 in-person in Park City, UT and January 24-29 online.