Revered documentarian Roger Ross Williams’ Cassandro is unexpected. It’s a lonely state of being to feel as if you aren’t present in your own life. For Saúl (Gael García Bernal), an amateur libre wrestler living in Juárez, Mexico, life seems to pass him by. When he’s not working at a carwash or helping his mother with her seamstress work, he participates in the low-end libra wrestling scene as El Topo, a faceless runt who consistently loses to the bigger, stronger wrestlers. Exhausted from being his married lover, secret, and dealing with his mother’s quiet resentment due to his father’s abandonment, Saúl begins seeking the life he deserves.
After teaming up with a new trainer, Sabina, she suggests Saúl give up his role as El Topo and begin fighting as Cassandro, an exótico. With a face full of makeup and draped in lush fabrics, exóticos never win in the libra wrestling scene. Instead, the f-word is hurled at them, and they are booed and jeered at. However, Saúl’s Cassandro changes all that. He begins winning over the crowd with his glamorous customs (outfits that painstakingly sewed together from his mother’s wardrobe) and charisma.
For those who have little interest in wrestling, especially the libra scene, Williams’ Cassandro is a warm welcome, unveiling Saúl’s world and the environment that has enticed him since he was a little boy. However, in a culture where machoism still reins, it’s clear that forces will soon band together to try and drag Saúl down before he can reach the pinnacle of his success as Cassandro.
The wrestling itself is the least exciting aspect of the film, especially since the pacing of the film doesn’t feel as harmonious as it should be. The world of libra wrestling could be replaced with almost any other sport. A layered and emotional work about what it means to show up as your true self and to be seen and recognized, the film is much quieter than expected. Bernal has a softness to his performance that tugs at the audience, even when some of his choices raise your eyebrows. Taking his time, Williams also invites the audience into Saúl’s past, especially his tense relationship with his father, which informs who he is today.
Cassandro isn’t particularly revolutionary, a young man decides who he wants to be, and the people around him react to that choice. However, because of the thoughtful direction and Bernal’s charisma, it is a lovely feature debut that will resonate with many who continue to feel unseen.
Cassandro premiered Jan. 20, 2023, at Sundance Film Festival.