'Cassandro' - Gael Garcia Bernal shines in new gay docudrama

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Monday September 18, 2023
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Gael Garcia Bernal in 'Cassandro' (photo: Amazon Studios)
Gael Garcia Bernal in 'Cassandro' (photo: Amazon Studios)

Roger Ross Williams, an Academy Award-winning documentarian, offers his first narrative feature with "Cassandro." The film tells the story of Saul Armendariz, a real life competitor in the world of Lucha Libre, Mexican wrestling.

Armendariz, who lives in El Paso, Texas, regularly crossed the border to wrestle under the name El Topo, until his new trainer Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) suggested that he compete as an "exotico," a wrestler who wears flamboyant costumes, often in drag. Many exoticos are gay, and Armendariz was no exception. He began to go by the name Cassandro and became quite successful as his new persona.

As Cassandro, Gael Garcia Bernal commands the screen. The actor, who is not gay, is superb as Cassandro, an exotico who wins matches and captures the imagination of the crowds.

'Cassandro' director Roger Ross Williams  

"When I met Cassandro, I was blown away because he conquered lucha libre, a macho, homophobic world of wrestling and became a superstar in this world," Williams, who is gay, said during a press junket. "And he did it on his own terms. He wrestled as an openly gay man in drag and he succeeded because he's so good at what he did. It's a very inspirational story and I just love telling inspirational stories. I love telling stories about underdogs who overcome huge adversity to great success."

Williams reported that Cassandro saw the film in a theater in El Paso which was rented by producer Amazon Studios for an audience of one. Williams sat behind Cassandro during this screening and recalled that Cassandro jumped up and down and screamed, mimicking the action on the screen. He even cried.

"It was an amazing experience to watch Cassandro watch the film for the first time," said Williams.

When he made the film, Williams was trying to tell the story of a gay man who found his voice because he became who he really is. Cassandro didn't run away from his true self, and that's the film's message: staying true to who you are and learning to love yourself.

"I hope the audience walks away with that message because I think it's an important message, not just for the LGBTQ community, but for everyone," Williams said. "Be who you are, take off your mask, self-love is very important."

Making "Cassandro" was quite a change of pace for Williams as he has made more than two dozen documentaries. One of his most recent was "Love to Love You, Donna Summer," which told the life and career of the legendary singer. The film was co-directed with Brooklyn Sudano, Summer's daughter, and premiered on HBO this past May.

In 2009 he took home the coveted Oscar for "Music by Prudence," a short documentary about the life of Zimbabwean singer/songwriter Prudence Mabhena. He said that he loves making documentaries but also enjoyed the process of creating a scripted feature and working with actors, and with crew members such as production designers and costume designers.

"I will be doing more fiction and I will be doing other documentaries as well," he said. "The wonderful thing is that I can do both. I love telling stories."

Winning an Oscar was a particularly wonderful night for Williams.

"I think it's an out of body experience, but it's also a career high," he said. "It's hard to be present, but I try to be present because you've achieved something so great, awarded by your peers. You're also nervous because its nerve-wracking sitting there and around you are all the greatest actors, directors, all the best in the business. So that's an honor, and so overwhelming, and the red carpet, everything. But when they call your name, it's kinda like out of body. You go on auto-pilot until you wake up backstage in front of the press, and you're like, what just happened?"

Williams said that Bernal was the perfect actor to play Cassandro because he's one of Mexico's most accomplished actors. Williams feels that Bernal is a talented, diverse actor who took on the physical aspects of the role as well as the film's emotional moments. He had no issues with making a gay-themed film in spite of the anti-LGBT backlash currently going on.

"While there are a lot of challenges, I think that America is ready for an uplifting gay film," Williams said.

"Cassandro" is in English and Spanish with English subtitles.
It screens through Sept. 27 at the Roxie Theater, 3125 16th St.

The film will premiere on Amazon Prime on September 22.

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