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[Sundance ’23] ‘Cassandro’ review: The rise of the “Liberace of lucha libre”

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Cassandro is a Sundance Film Festival World Premiere that charts the rise of the “Liberace of Lucha Libre”. Saul (Gael Garcia Bernal, Werewolf by Night) plays a luchador named El Topo who leaves no impression and always loses. When his new trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez, Prime Video’s A League of Their Own) convinces him to become an exotico, it changes lucha history.

Though Cassandro is a superstar in Mexico, he is a virtual unknown in the United States. Director and co-writer Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated) does an excellent job of alternating between Cassandro, the character and Saul, the person. This eliminates any barrier of entry as it presents a blank slate for all who watch.

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It also means the development of Saul – and by turn, Cassandro – rightfully become the main focus of the film. Bernal does a great job in a portrayal that is confident and headstrong, but also starstruck and insecure. This brings a genuine quality to a person that eventually reaches extraordinary heights. As Cassandro progresses, Saul becomes more self-assured. He uses the gay slurs from the crowd as added motivation, quickly winning them over.

This is one of the more interesting aspects of the movie. It is a positive portrayal of an openly gay man, yet does not delve deeply into the hardships Saul had to deal with in a sport and culture in which machismo is held in such high regard. This may be intentional, as the script never allows itself to get too predictable. Even as the money starts rolling, the film never focuses on the excesses. While there are hints of Saul’s hard living, the story never falls into the trope of having him push his closest allies away. Every time it seems like things may move in that direction, Cassandro quickly pivots in a new direction.

[Sundance '23] 'Cassandro' review: The rise of the "Liberace of lucha libre"

Saul’s supportive mother (Perla de la Rosa) is another highlight. The most important relationships in Saul’s life are built around trust and love, and none is more powerful than the one he has with his mom. None of the other characters are given quite as much depth, however.Cassandro places all focus on the character in place of building a more tangible conflict. There are hints that other luchadores feel the exotico is mocking lucha libre tradition and Saul’s estranged father is often mentioned, but neither subplot is really paid off. Still, the film will appeal to more than just wrestling fans.

The Sundance Film Festival takes place from January 19 -29. Full lineup can be found HERE

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