Cassandro could have been played as the Liberace of lucha libre, but Williams’ film doesn’t quite commit to the theatrical potential of his character or his story. It’s too serious, straightforward, and like a standard biopic—and this is about a lucha libre wrestler! We are here for the performance, the fun, the rooting for our heroes, and the fantasy of good vs. evil. Instead of feeling like a fight to the top, a la “Rocky,” or the anarchistic comedy of “GLOW,” the arc in “Cassandro” is a gentle climb up, relatively painless and quick.
For a movie so dedicated to identity, “Cassandro” only lightly tussles with everything happening in Saúl’s life. His doting mother encourages him to get a boyfriend early on, but a few scenes later, she blames him for coming out and driving away his father. Unfortunately, they never discuss her hesitant support for him. There’s also the unspoken issue that Saúl, a Mexican American from El Paso, Texas, is coming to Mexico to step into his true identity. He’s a “ni de aquí, ni de allá” kid, someone who straddles both cultures and struggles to be accepted by either side. For any American-born children of immigrants, it is usually one of the first things cousins back home will tease you about, and I’m sure sports fans would as well, but it’s never really mentioned as a part of his story. Considering the inter-cultural furor that bubbled over Mexican-American boxer Oscar de la Hoya when he fought the Mexican-born Julio César Chávez, it seems like a vital piece of the story went missing in this telling.
However, Williams does explore the enormity of what it meant for Saúl to be openly gay at a time when it was not as publicly accepted in a macho sport, with fans often calling him homophobic slurs. As Cassandro, Saúl chooses to play a character that enhances his femininity, costumes and makeup included. He literally and figuratively “unmasks” himself by ditching the luchador mask and taking up the campy moves and flair of an exótico with one caveat: he’s not just there to play the clown. He’s there to win. Using Sabrina’s techniques and training to overpower his larger, more macho opponents, his performance becomes as big a statement as putting on a cape and cat eyeliner to strut into the ring. He can win and no longer be the butt of jokes. Even if he doesn’t win, Cassandro gives the audience quite a show—so much that they cheer for him instead of the masked hero he’s fighting.