For nearly a century, exóticos have been the clowns of Mexican wrestling: silly, queer-coded characters in flamboyant drag who pranced about the ring for the amusement of homophobic crowds. These hoary stereotypes have long been a part of the tradition of lucha libre — the country’s second-most-popular sport after soccer. Since Mexican wrestling matches are treated like elaborate metaphors of good versus evil, exóticos always lost to their more macho adversaries. Until Cassandro, an openly gay fighter whose outsized personality and atypical success feel ready-made for the movies.
Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (“Life, Animated”) not only knows it, but possesses special insights into Cassandro’s story, having profiled Saúl Armendáriz for his 2016 short film “The Man Without a Mask.” Boosted by the dream casting of Mexican star Gael García Bernal as “the Liberace of Lucha Libre,” “Cassandro” arrives with a kind of instant credibility, which Williams protects by eschewing any sign of camp, opting instead for stately, respectful cinematography and a wistful horn score from “Fences” composer Marcelo Zarvos. The director downplays the effete character’s instinctive showmanship, instructing costume designer Mariestela Fernández not to overdo it with the sequins. As with the troweled-on mascara in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” being accurate might actually have been less believable.
To that end, Bernal trusts the character’s signature blond hairstyle (close-cropped on the side, a glam-rock pompadour on top) to be practically the only giveaway of Saúl’s homosexuality. No limp wrists or “yas bitch” repartee here, though it’s easy to imagine another filmmaker playing “Cassandro” for comedy, à la “Blades of Glory,” along with whatever cringe-y, queeny impersonation that would have called for. In Williams’ hands, the laughs never come at Saúl’s expense, ridiculous as this arena might seem to audiences. Luchadores are entertainers, first and foremost, and “Cassandro” celebrates that while taking Armendáriz’s achievements seriously.
When we first meet him — in the ring, of course — Saúl is competing as “El Topo,” a rudo (the bad guys, destined to lose to the more honorable técnico wrestlers). Tired of being tossed around and humiliated every night, Saúl convinces Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) to be his trainer. He wants to win for a change, and though the codes are clear, he devises a new character, Cassandro, loosely inspired by the title diva on the “Kassandra” telenovela. Saúl designs his own costumes, cutting up a leopard-print onesie that belongs to his mom (Perla de la Rosa) and devising the persona to match.
Saúl still lives at home (in Juaréz, just across the border from El Paso), where his mom tries her best to be supportive, while not-so-secretly blaming Saúl for his dad’s departure (the deadbeat was married to another woman, so there was never more than disappointment waiting down that road anyway). “Cassandro,” which Williams co-wrote with documentary editor David Teague, comes loaded with flashbacks to Saúl’s childhood, through which audiences come to understand the many layers of shame he carries — not just for his impossible-to-suppress queer identity, but also for being abandoned and rejected by his own father (Robert Salas).
There’s plenty working against Saúl, who practices a homophobic sport in a conservative Catholic society, and yet, “Cassandro” downplays the conflict — which is to say, pretty much anytime an obstacle comes up, Saúl surpasses it without much difficulty. For instance, no sooner has Saúl unveiled Cassandro than Sabrina tells the ringmaster this new exótico intends to win. And so he does. “Don’t fuck with our traditions,” one rival grumbles, but as soon as a promoter sees the crowd cheering for Cassandro (exóticos typically get booed), he rigs the match to play out in Saúl’s favor. From there, he keeps racking up victories until such time that he’s being invited to compete against the legendary El Hijo del Santo (who plays himself) in Mexico City.
That climactic showdown looks fake, but that’s kind of the point, and it’s fun watching Bernal reproduce body slams, spins and piledrivers. Most of Mexican wrestling is rigged anyway — in the sense that the moves are mimed and the outcomes preordained — which means that the sport’s embrace of Cassandro had to be OK’d by the people who run it. The stakes are high, considering that Cassandro changed the face of Mexican wrestling (he revealed his face, for one, and also his sexuality), and yet the conflict remains relatively low-key throughout, as if Williams believes that depicting the homophobia would be to perpetuate it.
On Saúl’s way to gay hero-hood, there are two men in his life whom he wants to win over: first, his father, and second, a fellow wrestler named Gerardo, aka “El Commandante” (Raúl Castillo), who is closeted and married. The scenes between the two lovers are touching but tragic, as we sense that their passion can only be fed in secret. The more famous Cassandro becomes, the more fearful of being discovered Gerardo grows. In their relationship, the movie presents its own “Brokeback Mountain”-esque glimpse at gay men in a hyper-masculine arena. And in Cassandro, we see a role model for those who take special excitement in the sight of sweaty men grappling in spandex.