El Paso native Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal) was considered a runt by the other luchadores when he competed as the masked El Topo. For years he ignored the advice of his colleagues who suggested he should become an exótico (flamboyant wrestlers who dressed in drag, most were gay) but he didn’t like the fact that exóticos always lost. He befriends talented female wrestler Lady Anarquia aka Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) convincing her to become his trainer while transforming into Cassandro with a dream of becoming the first exótico to win a championship. Writer-director Roger Ross Williams delivers an enjoyable high-flying biopic uncovering the man behind the makeup.

After watching Gael García Bernal as Cassandro it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. The Mexican actor who has thrilled us with performances in films that include “Amores perros,” “Y tu mamá también” and “Bad Education,” looks nothing like the real-life “Liberace of Lucha libre” but it doesn’t matter. He is the luchador-turned-exótico incarnate, just as Ray Liotta became Joe Jackson, Michael Fassbender became Steve Jobs, and Julia Roberts became Erin Brockovich.

Williams, who hashed out the screenplay with David Teague, stepped into the ring with Cassandro for the first time in 2016 when he shot a thirteen-minute documentary about the famed wrestler, “The Man Without a Mask”, for The New Yorker series on Prime Video. It was that experience that convinced the filmmaker to tell Armendáriz’s fascinating story with a feature-length biopic. And why not? It’s a story that takes the viewer beyond the world of Lucha libre (Mexican freestyle wrestling) as it explores issues of abandonment, homophobia, a strong maternal bond, and the advancement of Gay Rights during a time that saw the breakout of HIV/AIDS, the battle for domestic partnership benefits, and an ally in the LGBTQ+ community, Princess Diana, who is mentioned by Cassandro in the film.

The story begins with Saúl as an up-and-coming luchador who lives in El Paso with his mother Yocasta (Perla de la Rosa) who does laundry for rich white people to make ends meet. Yocasta also has a bad reputation after having an affair with a married man Eduardo (Robert Salas), played by Ronald Gonzales-Trujillo in the flashback scenes, who is also Saúl’s father. Williams incorporates flashbacks to give us a glimpse of Saúl’s childhood (Jorge Andrés Zerecero plays the young Saúl) which includes watching wrestling with his father. Legendary luchador El Santo became Saúl’s idol. Eventually, Eduardo abandoned Yocasta and his son to save his marriage.

After getting his butt kicked repeatedly by towering luchador Gigántico (playing himself), Saúl asks Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), a tough female wrestler who goes by Lady Anarquia to be his trainer. She agrees after seeing protentional in Saúl (the two become close friends) and helps him get ready to transform into Cassandro (the name inspired by a telenovela) with a mission to be the first exótico to win a championship.

Not saying that wrestling is rigged, but exóticos never won. So, if that’s true it means Cassandro had to buck the system to pull off that championship title. As we see in the film, homophobia ran rampant as the crowd booed exóticos while hurling derogatory terms, yet Cassandro became stronger and more flamboyant with each slur eventually beating his opponent and winning the respect of the audience. He forever changed the face of Lucha libre and advanced the LGBTQ+ movement by leaps, bounds, and pins.

Gael García Bernal is terrific in the role. One minute he has us laughing with his antics in the ring, and the next minute we are crying as Saúl deals with the loss of his mother, an unaccepting father, and a rocky romance with a fellow luchador and married man played by first-rate actor Raúl Castillo. It’s a nuanced performance by Bernal who continues to captivate audiences. Some of the film’s best scenes are the ones with Bernal and Castillo.

The film is enhanced by Matías Penachino’s cinematography as the Director of Photography adds warmth to scenes such as the red glow of streetlights adding a splash of color to the darkened commercial district of nighttime El Paso, or the glow of incandescent light piercing the dark courtesy of an open window as dusk sets in a neighborhood. Most of the film’s scenes take place in the evening or in darkened venues and thanks to Penachino, the visceral experience is comparable to being in a perfectly lit restaurant; The atmosphere makes the experience more enjoyable.

The supporting cast includes legendary Mexican character actor Joaquín Cosío who plays Cassandro’s agent, bar owner Leonard. He takes Cassandro under his wing and helps him reach superstar status which culminates with a match against El Hijo del Santo (playing himself), the beloved luchador who followed in the footsteps of his father famed luchador-actor-folk hero El Santo. Musician Bad Bunny continues to extend his acting range with a solid performance as Felipe, an assistant to Lorenzo who is tasked with taking care of Cassandro’s needs which includes a growing drug habit.

Roger Ross Williams’ “Cassandro” is an exceptional tribute to Saúl Armendáriz who charmed an entire country while empowering the LGBTQ+ community. The film leaves you with a feel-good disposition, like the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” However, Williams doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the famed luchador’s life and the R-rating signifies this one’s for adults.

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing at Alamo Drafthouse Richardson and Alamo Drafthouse Denton. Streaming globally on Prime Video September 22

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Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.