When Barton Fink, the neurotic screenwriter cooked up by the Coen brothers, scrambles to write a wrestling picture, his peers prescribe the basics. Tell us the man’s ambitions. Entangle him in a romance. You know the drill. Not even in Barton’s most delirious dreams could he have envisioned “Cassandro,” about a flamboyant, sequin-clad luchador who takes his ring name from a telenovela. But I bet Barton could have drafted the film’s outline, which uses the same squelchy gym bag of tricks as many underdog sports dramas.
Based on a real star of Mexican professional wrestling, or lucha libre, Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal) is a profoundly unusual athlete wedged into a biopic that sometimes feels like passable stage fighting: elegantly executed but drained of danger.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams (“Life, Animated”), the movie depicts the decisive, late-1980s period when Saúl ascended out of obscurity and into the big time, braving countless training montages and a few private miseries on his way to the top.
We meet the striver in Texas in early adulthood, when he is assisting his mother, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), with her laundry business and wrestling at a nearby club. Using the name El Topo (The Mole), he tumbles into the ring masked and petite, a pipsqueak doomed to act as a punching bag opposite giants. “Let me guess. You’re always cast as the runt?” challenges Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), a local lucha hotshot and trainer. She spies potential in Saúl, and offers to coach him pro bono.
Colindrez, like many of the actors in this movie, is a superlative performer. Her character is granted little interiority — she serves by turns as Saúl’s fierce advocate and his shoulder to cry on — but alongside Bernal she radiates a cool glow fit for a film less shackled by the ebbs and flows of established convention. In conversations with Sabrina, Saúl toggles between English and Spanish, reserving the latter for colloquialisms or teasing, and the mixture gives their dialogue an organic rhythm. He uses the same blend of languages with his lover, Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), a married luchador with kids whom Saúl sees in secret.
Saúl’s sexuality is at once a major plot point and somewhat underexplored. With gentle nudging from Sabrina, Saúl, who came out as a teen and is supported by his mother, soon reinvents his ring persona as the campy Cassandro, an “exótico,” or luchador who plays with femininity. The character initially attracts slurs and heckling, but quickly (and perhaps too effortlessly) starts winning matches and becomes a fan favorite. This is an era when H.I.V. and AIDS panic was at its shrillest, and although the real-life Cassandro was sometimes rebuffed by homophobic opponents, the movie never mentions the epidemic. (Williams wrote the screenplay with David Teague.)
“Cassandro” is at its strongest when it zeros in on the relationship between Saúl and Gerardo, who share a physical intimacy that both echoes their fighting careers and acts as an escape from them. Alone, safe from onlookers, the pair tussle in bed. “Don’t you think he’s sexy?” Saúl says, referring to Cassandro as if he were a third person who might join them.
Williams, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, is an expert orchestrator of naturalism. The trouble is that lucha libre, built on glitz, is anything but naturalistic. The self-assured freedom Saúl channels in bed never makes its way into scenes in the ring, which tend to tire when they should dazzle.
Rated R for drugs and slugs. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. Watch on Amazon Prime Video.