Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Saul Armendariz in "Cassandro." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jan. 30 (UPI) -- One need not be a wrestling fan to enjoy Cassandro, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The biopic of Saul Armendariz is accessible and endearing for anyone.
Saul (Gael Garcia Bernal) wrestled as the masked luchador El Topo, but he preferred to be the unmasked "exotico" Cassandro. Exoticos wrestled in women's clothing.
Saul made a costume and developed his Cassandro persona in the ring. He made great strides for the LGBTQ community in the industry and as a role model.
Before Cassandro, exoticos were expected to lose to the manly luchadors. Fans in the audience would scream the F word at them.
Cassandro doesn't magically win over all homophobes by the end of the movie, but he makes progress. The film shows the demonstrable difference Cassandro made for gay visibility, and inspiring fans who had no other role model making them feel they could come out.
Like any sports movie, Cassandro shows how Saul trained with Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), who wrestled herself as Lady Anarquia. Saul sketches his Cassandro costume and then brings it to life in fabric.
Cassandro depicts the showmanship Saul brought to the ring. That's pure joy on Bernal's face, and he's also flipping and somersaulting himself.
Cassandro became the first exotico to win a match just because somebody had vision. Saul suggested it but it was when a promoter saw the audience responding to Cassandro that he put money behind it.
Of course, money wasn't enough for some luchadors to agree to lose to Cassandro, but it only took one who was game to go with this new direction in the story.
The film shows Saul taking injections, and sometimes cocaine, but does not dwell on the impact of drugs. Saul's relationship with his mother (Perla De La Rosa) remains important in his life too
Saul also has a romantic relationship with opponent Gerardo (Raul Castillo), who is married to a woman and has kids. Not everything goes the way Saul hopes. There was still more progress to be made for gay men to be out and supported in society, and there still is.
The film mixes equal parts Spanish and English. Luchadors like Gigantico and Son of Santo play themselves, though never remove their masks, showing they still have great love for Cassandro.
Cassandro is an inspiring true story that makes a very specific industry a universal underdog story. It depicts the hardships too, but overall Cassandro has a happy ending.
Prime Video will release Cassandro in 2023.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.