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‘Cassandro’ Review: Gael García Bernal Delivers a Star Performance, In and Out of the Ring

Sundance 2023: As the real-life gay lucha libre superstar, García Bernal captures the heart and physicality of a queer pioneer

Based on a true story, “Cassandro” is the best possible vehicle for its star Gael García Bernal, who gives an extraordinarily physical performance as Saúl Armendáriz, a scrappy gay outsider who enters the strange world of Mexican Lucha Libre wrestling.

In the first scenes, where we see Armendáriz competing under the name El Topo, director Roger Ross Williams — the documentarian behind “The Apollo” and “God Loves Uganda” making his fiction-film debut here — confidently and swiftly sketches in a milieu in which homoeroticism and fear of homosexuality are in some peculiar kind of headlock with each other.

Armendáriz takes taunts from hulking wrestlers backstage and dishes them right back, and out in the ring his preordained defeat at the hands of his brawny opponent is so sexually charged that the homoeroticism isn’t subtext; it is practically text. “El Topo bites the pillow!” his opponent cries, and the crowd roars its approval.

What the audiences at the wrestling matches in “Cassandro” seem to be enjoying is seeing the flamboyant and beautiful, younger and smaller wrestler physically defeated or tamed. So it is enormously satisfying when Bernal’s Armendáriz decides to assume a new wrestling persona he names Cassandro and turns this reaction on its head.

This movie would be worth seeing if only for the first few times that Bernal enters the ring as Cassandro, initially to a Spanish cover of “I Will Survive” and then to Blondie’s “Call Me.” As Bernal struts forward with feminine make-up on his face and the gaudiest possible singlet on his body, it feels like even Armendáriz doesn’t realize just what he is unleashing within himself and on the world, an in-your-face gender-queerness that has no limits and carries with it the excitement of newness and possibility.

Bernal’s Cassandro is such a peacock yet so athletically cunning in the ring that the crowd that has been crying “Puta!” at him in derision suddenly and believably starts to root for this uninhibited show-off, responding to both his guts and his skill; this turnabout has such power because Williams has made it as believable as possible without lingering over anything. We see a kicky montage of Cassandro’s matches set to “Fever,” and this proves that montages don’t need to seem old-fashioned and can still be effective as a storytelling device.

“Cassandro” isn’t all bells and whistles. There are many beautifully played and shot scenes that Armendáriz shares with his beloved mother Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa, “A Thousand Clouds of Peace”), from whom he has inherited his attraction to emotionally unavailable married men. Williams and cinematographer Matias Penachino make sure there is an all-embracing depth of field in the compositions we see of Armendáriz and his mother, and this lets us know visually that they are in their own loving world together.

There is a feeling sometimes in “Cassandro” of gritty 1970s cinema, particularly in the musical score by Marcelo Zarvos (“Emancipation”), who gets a lot of mileage out of the sound of a mournful horn. But there is humor, too, as when Armendáriz talks about his alter ego after getting railed by his secret lover (Raúl Castillo) and cries, “I think Cassandro’s a top!”

This is a movie that understands the appeal of having an alter ego, and one of its most insightful scenes comes when Armendáriz takes a hot guy into a bathroom stall at a bar to have sex him, and the guy refuses to believe that he is Cassandro: “I saw the posters…you’re cute, but that isn’t you,” he says, which offends Armendáriz so much that his horniness evaporates and he leaves the stall in a huff.

Bernal has been in two classic films — Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y tu mamá también” and Pedro Almodóvar’s “Bad Education” — and he has also been in more than his share of forgettable movies in the years since, so it is bracing to see him in a part like this that plays to all of his strengths. Bernal makes Armendáriz’s need for love as outsized as his vulnerability, and his physical expressiveness runs the gamut from fearless somersaults in the ring to the most beautifully feminine gesture in conversation where he places his hand on his sternum. This is a star performance because it commands the camera and dares to be bold, yet when tragedy strikes Armendáriz’s life Bernal chooses to react in a remarkably restrained way, making his character even more beguiling.

“Cassandro” falters only in the last few scenes, which feel a bit too tidy, particularly when Armendáriz reunites with his father. This picture likely should have ended when Bernal’s Cassandro says on a talk show that his mother made him what he is today, a not-unambivalent statement in spite of his great love for her. Still, this is a triumph for Bernal and for Williams and all his collaborators, a film that takes on very fresh territory and suffuses all of its frames with love for all of the people in it.

“Cassandro” will release globally on Prime Video in 2023.