'Cassandro the Exotico!': Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Acid Cannes
'The Wrestler' with an LGBT twist.

Director Marie Losier ('The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jay') follows Mexican luchador Cassandro during the last years of his long and bone-breaking career.

Known as the “Liberace of Lucha Libre,” Saul Armendariz, aka Cassandro, is both fabulous and ferocious.

An openly gay champion of Mexican wrestling’s exotico subgenre, in which fighters dress in drag and put on an action-packed show filled with punches, pile-drivers and high camp, the 47-year-old luchador is winding down his long career with plenty of ice packs and memories of his triumphs in the ring.

In the lively documentary Cassandro the Exotico!, director Marie Losier (The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jay) chronicles the wrestler’s twilight years with affection, humor and gravitas, revealing a man who built his hard-knock success across several frontiers: the geographical one between the U.S. and Mexico; the sexual one by practicing a macho, and often brutal, entertainment sport while wearing lady’s spandex, makeup and wonderfully blown-out hair; and the physiological one by wavering between periods of sobriety and addiction as he deals with his substance abuse issues.

Yet as much as Cassandro seems to shift between various characters and states of being, he’s very much a man of steel between the ropes, performing acrobatic stunts with incredible resilience despite all the injuries and broken bones he has suffered on the job. Losier started documenting the former belt order when he was already into his 40s and his body was starting to get the better of him, and she follows him up to the moment he decides to put away his tights for good.

It’s a moving and sometimes amusing portrait of grit and glitter overcoming adversity — and one that was made entirely on 16mm film, with the Paris-based director experimenting with different frame rates and sound effects as she follows the wrestler in and out of the ring. After premiering in the ACID sidebar at Cannes, Cassandro should keep on fighting in festivals and select art-house theaters, especially those programming LGBT fare.

Shot over a period of five years, and punctuated by wrestling bouts that we often see accelerated at 18 frames per second, the documentary shows Cassandro in a variety of scenarios: kicking butt; doing flips or diving through the ropes in a dangerous wrestling move known as the “suicide”; working his makeup magic and taking particular care of his spectacular pompadour (which, we learn, sometimes gets torn up by opponents); recovering from different operations for busted knees and other broken limbs; visiting his childhood home in El Paso and his training grounds across the border in Ciudad Juarez, where he turned to lucha libre because “it was like a free therapy session” for a kid who was often picked on and needed to teach himself how to fight back.

In 1992, Cassandro managed to become the first exotico to win a world champion belt in his weight class, setting an example for other gay wrestlers who would follow in his wake. Some of the most touching scenes in the film show him training younger fighters in his makeshift backyard arena, continuing to do damage to his aging body as he tries to pass down skills to future generations. These sequences are contrasted with darker moments where he speaks about addiction problems that began when he was a teenager. As one late scene reveals, such issues continue to haunt him as he tries to quell the pain, both physical and psychological, that comes with retirement.

Like in 2011’s Genesis and Lady Jay, which followed the trans musician and former Throbbing Gristle frontman Genesis P-Orridge, Losier has an ethereal way of depicting Cassandro’s different exploits, jumping between reality and dreamlike sequences to reveal the many sides of a luchador whose life cannot be defined in simple terms. Indeed, this is a man who both defies gravity in the ring and defies the binary ways we tend to see ourselves, and the movie does him justice by refusing to adhere to all the accepted rules of documentary filmmaking. Editing by Ael Dallier Vega and art direction by Simon Fravega add further layers to the celestial quality of the imagery, focusing on the colorful objects and costumes that make Cassandro who he is.  

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (ACID)
Production company: Tamara Films, Tu Vas Voir
Cast: Cassandro
Director: Marie Losier
Screenwriters: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud
Producers: Carole Chassaing, Antoine Barraud
Director of photography: Marie Losier
Editor: Ael Dallier Vega
Art director: Simon Fravega
Sales: Urban Distribution International

In English, Spanish
73 minutes