The biopic “Cassandro” is a showcase for the talents of actor Gael García Bernal. The star of 2001′s “Y tu mama también” and 2021′s “Old” now plays Saúl Armendáriz, an El Paso, Texas, native who wrestled in the Mexican sport of lucha libre as the titular luchador. The character Cassandro is the embodiment of the brash confidence Armendáriz strives for in real life, and Bernal ably plays both sides of his character with verve, wit, and an impressive physicality.
Director Roger Ross Williams has had a very busy year with documentaries (“Love to Love You, Donna Summer,” the upcoming “Stamped From the Beginning”). Here, he and co-writer David Teague deliver a narrative feature that’s sunnier than the real story. A 2014 New Yorker article entitled “The Man Without a Mask” gave the real Cassandro the opportunity to paint a grittier picture of his life and career.
Though “Cassandro” doesn’t completely shy away from darkness and tragedy, it is largely a feel-good movie. The tone appears to be a conscious choice, and I understand why the sharper edges were blunted. Films about LGBTQ+ people often focus more on pain than joy. Considering the current climate, an uplifting film about a gay hero who triumphed in a sport that was originally quite homophobic feels welcome and necessary. The last scene exemplifies the film’s desire to be a positive influence.
Besides, this isn’t a documentary, though one was made in 2018 entitled “Cassandro, the Exótico!”
The exótico in that title refers to a recurring character in lucha libre, one that goes back to the 1940s. Wrestling storylines always have a good guy, a villain, and a scripted outcome. The exótico represented the opposite of the macho heroes who always won the matches. He was depicted as a gay man, often stereotypically swishy and over-the-top, a character at whom the fans could scream slurs while he wrestled.
Most of the exóticos were allegedly straight men; Armendáriz is gay and openly so. In the film, he starts his career in Juarez, Mexico, as a regular villain named “El Topo” (The Mole). At the advisement of his trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), herself a famous luchador, he decides to wrestle as an exótico. And, bucking tradition, he wants to win matches.
His new persona, Cassandro, eschews a mask, wears makeup and, for one match, uses a blouse belonging to his mother, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), as part of his flashy costume. Yocasta is fine with her son being gay, and they are extremely close, but her husband left when his son came out at 15. “He was very much into Jesus,” Cassandro tells Sabrina. He was also very much into lucha, the one thing father and son bonded over.
The flaw with Cassandro’s plan to be a champion lies in the fact that no straight luchador wants to lose to an exótico; it would imply that he were bested by a weaker man and even lead to questions about his own sexuality. But once a promoter sees Cassandro’s skill and dexterity in the ring, he offers his wrestler double the pay to lose.
Subsequently, Cassandro’s popularity rises to the point where he’s offered a Mexico City match with the legendary El Hijo del Santo, a luchador who is never seen without his mask and is as famous as Hulk Hogan or the Rock was in WWE.
The scenes between Yocasta and her son are some of the film’s best. Cassandro lights both of their cigarettes like he’s Paul Henreid in “Now, Voyager,” and they have a rapport that’s touching and sweet. Yocasta even defends Cassandro from slur-shouting audience members, slapping them and proclaiming, “Hey, that’s MY son!”
For dramatic conflict, the film chronicles the love affair between Cassandro and closeted, married luchador Gerardo (Raúl Castillo). Despite Cassandro’s wishes, Gerardo won’t leave his wife and kids. Though Castillo and Bernal have great chemistry, this plotline could have used more fleshing out. Additionally, superstar Bad Bunny (credited by his real name, Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio) shows up in a bit of stunt casting as Felipe, a drug dealer Cassandro crushes on; his scenes feel extraneous.
“Cassandro” predictably ends with the biopic tropes of a son dealing with his father issues and inspiring others to follow in his footsteps. And yet, I was moved by these familiar scenes. Bernal is so good here that you’ll forgive the film’s trespasses, and credit is due for showing how important it was for Cassandro to be openly gay and in the ring.
Plus, Williams keeps the pace quick and tight, the wrestling scenes are fun, and the costumes are delightful. With its message of acceptance, “Cassandro” is preaching to the choir, but it’s a good sermon nonetheless.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams. Written by Williams and David Teague. Starring Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Raúl Castillo, Perla De La Rosa, Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio. In English and Spanish. 107 min. At the Coolidge. On Prime Video. R (sex, slurs, body slams)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.