Cassandro: A Story About Masks & Masculinity

There is just enough intersection between professional wrestling stories and stories about embracing one’s Queer identity, that the subjects are compatible. We can talk about masks, our projected selves that reside within our ego, who show someone who we want to be. Professional wrestling is a big show about the masks we wear and a practical exercise in how an audience perceives our character. Professional wrestling is a physically engaged version of drag culture with arm drag takedowns. Where mask culture meets hyper-masc culture, wrestling can also be used for bad ideas, like weaponizing and familiarizing homophobia, based on how character arcs are framed and performed. Cassandro, however, is one of the stories about when wrestling goes right, where there is room for the “Liberace of Lucha Libre” to leave his permanent stamp on the story.

The character of Cassandro, played in real life by Saúl Armendáriz and in the movie by Gael García Bernal, belongs to a specific class of Luchadores called Exóticos, who bring into the ring a direct conflict in the soap opera war about machismo. If Mexican freestyle wrestling is about who is the most masculine, and that is so often how it is framed, then the existence of another category often results in that category playing the villainous role in-ring. Using drag and a liberal sense of camp, Exótico wrestlers play into identities across the gender spectrum, but in the storytelling, are often used to deny the macho prowess of their opponent.

What began as a gimmick in tradition became a representative category. Wrestlers who presented as Queer in their day-to-day lives began to pose as characters who truly represented who they are. Cassandro’s story is one of the most interesting to that effect: an identity story about depth and despair with reliable redemption at the end. Film it and ship it. It’s the kind of story movies are made for, just recently presented as a documentary in Marie Losier’s Cassandro, the Exótico (2018), which is a good post-wrestling story about grappling with the debilitating aftereffects that follow a life in the ring. After all the broken bones, metal pins put into his body brushes with self-harm, and his hero story about spiritual, physical, and emotional recovery, he is such a fitting subject for a biopic.

It goes how you think it will go. The movie does what you expect of it. Roger Ross Williams is expectantly an affectionate director of Cassandro’s story. Gael García Bernal lives up to his promise with an empathetic and emotionally searching portrayal. The picture blends successfully the story of the character’s rise through wrestling promotions, mirrored by his outward acceptance of his interior life as a Queer person. It is sweet and giving about that, while still capturing the challenges along the way. It is not shot with any fuss but it shows how hard the job of wrestling is and the emotional hardships of the character with the same thematic acuity. Here we have an identity film that is suitable for the marks of flamboyant masks and showboating drag. Anchored by a good performance and compassion for the subject and audience, Cassandro is a good movie with a good message and a beautifully tearful denouement, which is enough to see the movie.


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