In the world of lucha libre, the unique brand of professional wrestling from Mexico, fighters are primarily split between two warring archetypes. There are the tecnicos, masked “good guys” who look like superheroes and move with a graceful, technically impressive style. On the other side are rudos, brutish, brawling “bad guys” whose primary job is to draw the crowd’s ire. 

These matches are very physical and taxing on the human body. They are also brief morality plays with predetermined outcomes designed to assert a comforting status quo. But the central figure in “Cassandro” is perhaps the most iconic example of a third option for these grapplers: the exotico.

When we meet Saul (Gael García Bernal), a diminutive, bleach-blonde wrestler who works under a mask as “El Topo,” multiple colleagues suggest he shift his career trajectory by becoming an exotico. Night after night, he plays a scrappy runt of a rudo who gets the snot beat out of him by the titanic wrestler Gigantico, while fans cheer at his pain. 

But exoticos are a different type of wrestler. They’re flamboyant, drag queen-esque performers who parade around like a prejudiced police sketch artist’s approximation of homosexuality, their maskless faces covered in makeup so broadly drawn it could be mistaken from afar for clown paint. They are, in practice, little more than a pair of homophobic keys to jangle in the faces of the drunk audience members who chant slurs at the ring with Pavlovian consistency. 

Becoming an exotico could, in theory, provide Saul with the change he’s been looking for. But this career advice does not come from an earnest place. Saul is openly gay. His less-than-accepting co-workers assume it would be an easier job for him, given they believe that cartoonish stereotype is how all gay men are. But Saul’s not against working as an exotico just because he doesn’t want to exploit his sexual identity for a crowd. He wants to be a star, and exoticos always lose. 

But through a series of setbacks and circumstances, Saul does choose to take off the mask and trade it for lipstick, but he does it his own way. He invents the persona “Cassandro” and, through it, expands the limits of what an exotico can be in and out of the ring. 

For a better idea about the real life and storied career of this influential lucha figure, you would do better to watch “Cassandro the Exotico,” a 2018 documentary exploring his history. While entertaining, this sensationalized tale, by writer/director Roger Ross Williams, surrounding the broad strokes of his story feels like a missed opportunity on multiple fronts.

Williams seems largely uninterested in exploring the rich complexity of lucha libre culture beyond the absolute bare minimum necessary for Saul’s story to make sense. For anyone familiar with the world of professional wrestling, seeing Saul’s arc unfold between the ropes is a thing of beauty. 

Saul is able to transform Cassandro from a figure who is booed and met with hateful vitriol to someone who wins over the crowd through his balletic movement and charm. But for a more casual viewer who is given little to go off of concerning the scripted and choreographed nature of the fights, the true breadth of Saul’s gifts is lost. 

While all biographical films have to take liberties with facts to make for enticing fiction, “Cassandro” reorders so many vital points and fudges so much of the timeline that it may as well have been a wholly original story “inspired” by the man it seeks to mythologize. The many departures from reality would be more acceptable if they led to a sturdier screenplay with a clearer structure. Often, filmmakers make fictional adjustments to the facts purely for the unavoidable reason that real life doesn’t always follow the three-act structure. But to make a biopic that still struggles with narrative even after this much revisionism, why change so much to begin with?

So much is left on the table here. It would have been fascinating to see a better exploration of the relationship between the homophobia in Saul’s life that strains his otherwise loving relationship with his mother (Perla de la Rose) and the vitriol from the crowd. Or to better highlight the thematic convergence of luchadors hiding behind a mask to play these larger-than-life characters with the very different duality experienced by Saul’s closeted lover (Raul Castillo), whose wife and children know nothing about his true self. These criticisms don’t even get into the literal crime of casting megastar Bad Bunny in the film only for him to play a flat, barely present side character who occasionally sells Saul cocaine.

For all its missed opportunities, however, “Cassandro” is one of Bernal’s career-best performances. It’s a feat how well he expresses a tortured inner life through physicality and his gaze. Every bit of the tragedy in his origins comes off through the heavy lifting Bernal does. And what Williams may lack as a screenwriter, he luckily makes up for with a patience for filming the spectacle of the ring alongside the more languid side of Saul’s home life.

Aficionados of lucha may get more from “Cassandro” than the uninitiated will. However, it’s still an endearing and engaging portrait of otherness and the way the things about ourselves that hold us back in life can be what propels us forward to the life we’ve always wanted. It’s hard to gripe about a message that is that inspiring.

“Cassandro” is streaming on Amazon Prime.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, “Cassandro” wouldn’t exist.