Transformation is always a word thrown around when film fans (or the press) start talking about great acting performances. Daniel Day-Lewis ‘transforms’ into the crippled Irish poet Christy Brown in My Left Foot and wins an Oscar. John Hurt ‘transforms’ into the crippled and deformed John Merrick in The Elephant Man and gets an Oscar nomination.
An equally powerful transformation occurs in Cassandro, but it has nothing to do with heavy prosthetics or pretending to be physically disabled. It’s a transformation of liberation, and watching it unfold before your eyes is as powerful as any previous award-winning performance.
After years of struggling as a masked underdog in a lot of low-budget Lucha libre shows, Saúl Armendáriz, a gay amateur wrestler from El Paso known as El Topo, takes off his mask, puts on his makeup, and enters the ring as the bodacious Cassandro. It’s a massive risk because gay Lucha libre wrestlers, known as exoticos, are rare in the sport and generally hated by the audience. And they never, ever win. You can see all that pressure and history pressing down on the shoulders of Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal) as he climbs into the ring for the first time as Cassandro to face the fan favorite, Gigántico.
And then the transformation begins. It starts slowly. Armendáriz makes a few tentative flamboyant gestures at his opponent, followed by a sassy movement or two for the crowd. Then, because he is, after all, a Lucha libre, he adds a few actual wrestling moves that leave Gigántico as flustered as anything else the exotico does. The action in the ring is fun and exciting, but watching it all play out across Bernal’s face is breathtaking. El Topo doesn’t win the match, but Cassandro is born.
And just as the exotico’s life will never be the same after that fateful night, the audience’s attitude toward the film and its hero changes, too. The way Bernal bares his soul for the camera in that scene captures the viewers’ hearts and makes Cassandro real. You’re in the crowd cheering his name at the matches. You join him at the bar when it’s over and buy him a beer to celebrate his victories. You share his thrill when he finally makes it to the big time in Mexico City and feel his pain when personal tragedy strikes outside the ring. For 107 minutes Cassandro is all that matters and it’s a feeling that will have you rushing home to YouTube.com to find out more about the real exotico.
While Bernal’s exciting performance is at the heart of Cassandro, director Roger Ross Williams (Love to Love You, Donna Summers) gives the story soul with some beautiful supporting performances. Perla de la Rosa is perfection as Cassandro’s mother, Yocasta, a woman whose devotion to her son is only equalled by the unrequited love she feels for the man who fathered him. Roberta Colindrez is also good as Sabrina, a fellow wrestler who helps Cassandro realize his potential inside the ring. Raúl Castillo plays Gerardo, the macho wrestler having a secret affair with Cassandro. His performance as a married man on the downlow with a male coworker feels a bit too cliche at times, but the final confrontation he has when his secret is revealed is memorable. Music artist and actor Bad Bunny (Bullet Train) makes an appearance as Felipe, a young hustler working his way up in the behind the scenes world of Lucha libre. Although he doesn’t get a lot of screen time, his scenes with Bernal are notable for being calm oases in the chaos that Cassandro’s life becomes.
In a movie year where Barbie’s box office and Oppenheimer’s explosion have dominated the headlines, one can only hope that, like its protagonist, Cassadro breaks out to find the audience it needs and, when the time comes, the award attention it deserves.