Director Roger Ross Williams made a short documentary about the Mexican wrestler Cassandro for The New Yorker in 2016, and understandably seems to have become fascinated with his subject: an openly gay pioneer in his macho sport and an enormously colourful character. But in this dramatised (and sometimes fictionalised) retelling of Cassandro’s life, it’s the insecurities behind the bravado that take centre stage.
As we meet him here, young(ish) Saúl (Gael García Bernal) is living with his single mum Yocasta (Perla de la Rosa) and scraping a living in low-level Mexican wrestling matches. His only release is via a very secret affair with a married fellow wrestler, El Comandante (Raúl Castillo). But with his career going nowhere, and fed up with being abused by his peers for his sexuality, Saúl creates a new character, Cassandro, with a flamboyant new persona to match — and suddenly finds success.
While you may lose patience before the end with Cassandro and Saúl, their struggle will linger with you.
This is not, however, your typical triumphant sports movie. Even if Cassandro has an impenetrable skin, able to embrace the homophobic jeering that once hurt Saúl, and even if he can win over the crowds and other wrestlers, he can't solve all the problems that Saúl and Yocasta face. The prospect of rejection and even violence continues to haunt both, as Williams reminds us in little overheard asides that there’s still enormous hostility towards this gay icon.
That creates an uncomfortable tension: you're not just worried whether Cassandro's going to win a match; you are desperately concerned for his mental and physical wellbeing outside the ring. Bernal is such a likeable actor that even Saúl's darker and more vicious moments make you worried for him rather than those at whom he lashes out.
It's beautifully shot — there are moments in the floodlights and the ring that will take your breath away – but perhaps too slowly paced to hold the entire audience. Williams lingers on the moments of quiet between the cheers and the little rituals that ground his hero before each fight, but while you may lose patience before the end with Cassandro and Saúl, their struggle will linger with you.