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Cassandro Review: Gael García Bernal Is at His Best in Spirited Wrestling Biopic

Bernal throws himself into his performance in Prime Video's uneven but celebratory film

Matthew Jacobs
Gael García Bernal, Cassandro

Gael García Bernal, Cassandro

Prime Video

Movies about athletes tend to recycle the same shopworn tropes that Rocky popularized back in 1976, so it's a relief when one breaks the mold, at least slightly. Cassandro, starring Gael García Bernal as the pseudonymous championship wrestler, trains its lens on a world Hollywood rarely touches: lucha libre, a highly theatrical form of Mexican freestyle fighting where camp and machismo coalesce in imperfect harmony. Sylvester Stallone wouldn't know what to do with all the glitz. 

Bernal does, though. As Saúl Armendáriz, a working-class Texan who began training in lucha libre at age 15, the actor's watchful eyes and lithe figure belie the bravado Saúl applied to his practice. He was what's called an exótico, male wrestlers who bring pageantry to the ring by borrowing flamboyant gay stereotypes. They tend to lose, often by design. But unlike many other early exóticos, Saúl was both openly gay and victorious, becoming the first one to win the Universal Wrestling Association's lightweight title. 

Cassandro, which takes its name from Saúl's telenova-inspired wrestling moniker, has all the right narrative heft, updating the sports genre with hot pants and the most vibrant spandex patterns ever committed to film. Still, the movie — co-written by David Teague and director Roger Ross Williams, who together made the sweet documentary Life, Animated — doesn't fully balance its two halves. Despite a supportive mother (Perla de la Rosa), Saúl endures the harsh realities of the early '80s: a religious father who abandoned him when he came out, a lover (Raúl Castillo) who won't leave his wife. This is as much a gay trauma story as it is an athletic lark, and the former risks as many potential clichés as the latter. Both threads end on notes of resilience, but they feel unfocused. We are told of Saúl's value more than we are made to understand it. Exactly how he became so popular despite enduring crowds' homophobic taunts is fuzzy.




  • Gael García Bernal is fantastic
  • The wrestling scenes are shot with integrity
  • Lots of colorful spandex


  • The world of lucha libre feels unfocused
  • Can't resist gay trauma clichés

As expected, Cassandro builds toward a rousing third-act showdown that will test Saúl's bona fides. Can a trainer (the always great Roberta Colindrez) and crooked promoter (Joaquín Cosio) boost his legitimacy enough to transcend exóticos' showstopping inferiority? By that point, Bernal steps out with his whole body, flinging his modest physique to and fro so that Saúl's over-the-top bluster reads as the sequence's greatest display. It's tiring to see the film follow such vigor with a cheesy talk-show appearance where audience members inform Saúl of the ways he has inspired them. 

What's most commendable about Cassandro is Bernal's commitment. The fight scenes have a roving eye, never chopping up the action like so many sports films that must obscure the stunt doubles subbing in for actors. The camerawork that Williams and cinematographer Matias Penachino (Opus Zero) employ matches the zest of Bernal's performance. He is superb at playing characters with shifty, chameleonic confidence, as in Y Tu Mamá También, Bad Education, No, and this film. Saúl's cocksure wrestling persona counters the soulful striver who just wants to buy his mom a nice house.

Even though it lands a bit softly by the finale, Cassandro's celebratory spirit taps into a dynamic slice of history unfamiliar to most Americans. It's about putting on a show and refusing to play the part you've been assigned. Saúl wanted to succeed, and Williams' movie lets Bernal — one of today's finest actors — do the same. 

Premieres: Friday, Sept. 22 on Prime Video
Who's in it: Gael García Bernal, Raúl Castillo, Bad Bunny, Perla de la Rosa, Roberta Colindrez
Who's behind it: Roger Ross Williams (director and co-writer); David Teague (co-writer)
For fans of: Lycra and triumphant underdog stories