Cassandro, the Exotico!, 2018.
Directed by Marie Losier.
An intimate portrait of one of Mexico’s most famous “exotico” wrestlers as he grapples with the dying days of his illustrious career in the ring.
Professional wrestling in Mexico is a layered and complex world of traditions, pageantry and incredible athletic talent. Everyone is familiar with the masked luchadores like Rey Mysterio, but fewer are aware of the “exoticos” – usually male wrestlers who introduce over-cranked feminine aspects to their appearance and demeanour, similar to drag queens. Indeed, the subject of documentary Cassandro, the Exotico! – now available on MUBI and Amazon Prime – describes himself in an early scene as “the Liberace of lucha libre”. French filmmaker Marie Losier’s doc is an intimate, but muddled portrait of the man behind the sparkles.
Cassandro is an icon in the world of lucha libre, having become the first exotico to ever become a world champion in 1991. Shot over five years on 16mm film, this documentary meets him in his mid-forties and grappling not only with his in-ring opponents, but with his own ageing and the certainty that, eventually, he just won’t be able to go the distance in the ring any more. A moving early scene shows Cassandro listing the litany of injuries he has sustained, from dozens of broken bones and at least eight hospital trips due to concussion to the telltale head scarring caused by a career of blade jobs – intentional cutting of the forehead to create a dramatic “crimson mask” of blood.
There’s no doubt that Cassandro is a compelling figure, having overcome abuse as a child and addiction as an adult through spirituality and determination. He’s an appealing mixture of old school wrestling dude and forward-thinking boundary-pusher, using the latter days of his career to elevate younger guys – a late scene shows him after losing his hair in a lucha de apuesta – and focus on training the next generation. On the one hand, Cassandro is planning for a post-wrestling future but, on the other, he can’t even comprehend hanging up his Princess Diana-inspired outfits.
Sadly, the film rather trips over its own style. Losier’s deliberately lo-fi aesthetic gives the movie a rather twee feel that, at times, undercuts the intimacy of the portrayal by making the filmmaking process visible at every turn, not least in the rounded corners of the almost square frame. The movie’s style is consistently experimental and unusual, with different frame rates introduced throughout and montages deployed for mood rather than plot. As Cassandro’s career unravels, the final act eschews structure altogether for something bold and impressionistic, but it just doesn’t quite work.
For those without prior knowledge of the lucha libre world, there’s little in Cassandro, the Exotico! to really explain the star’s significance. There’s brief lip service to the idea of the “exotico” within Mexican wrestling culture early on, but little to define why Cassandro was so successful within that arena, beyond his evident charisma both inside and outside the ring.
There are glimpses of Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-nommed work in The Wrestler in the film’s portrayal of an increasingly broken down gunslinger struggling with when to step away from the only purpose he has known in life. Sadly, though, this rather disappears in the maelstrom of self-consciously quirky colour and soft focus.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.