I saw my first live wrestling at the Roundhouse in London as part of the Lucha Future 2011 tour. I had long been wrestling fan, but the thought of watching attending a show hadn’t occurred until I saw a newspaper ad for this show and convinced some friends to join me. In hindsight, the show was nothing special, but one participant in the main event left a lasting impression. That was Cassandro, a leading figure of lucha libre’s exótico tradition of flamboyant Mexican drag performers, who has sometimes been referred to as the Liberace of wrestling. Through sheer force of personality, Cassandro became the most over person on the card and fans were treated to positive interactions with him in the bar afterward. Cassandro’s energy left me wanting more and helped establish live wrestling as a significant part of my life ever since.
For that reason, I was keen to see Cassandro, The Exotico!, a new feature documentary on him from French filmmaker Marie Losier. The film received a limited US theatrical release in 2019 and is now available on worldwide streaming for the first time.
The film is an intimate portrait that follows Cassandro (real name Saúl Armendáriz) through his home life, socializing, wrestling, training, travel and backstage. We see the effects of Cassandro’s injuries have taken on him and the toll of a life in the ring, while also learning of his challenges in being openly gay in a conservative climate, the loss of his mother, a previously strained relationship with his father and struggles with addiction. This is a human depiction of a larger than life character with a real sense of melancholy and pathos. Throughout all his difficulties, Cassandro endures in a way that befits the tone of his entrance theme, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. This contrasts with the film’s most compelling aspect as Cassandro (approaching his fifties) comes to terms with his wrestling career approaching its end. He is competing against the passing of time in a rivalry that will eventually defeat us all.
Despite these somber topics, Cassandro keeps things entertaining by being a charismatic and likeable subject. His addiction to his craft is infectious and he clearly loves the theatricality of live performance, be it in a AAA main event, an international tour or a sparsely attended indy show. His passion is for people’s reactions as humble surroundings suggest little financial reward has come from his years of competition. Kayfabe and reality intersect as he is genuinely upset over losing a hair vs hair match and parting with a major part of his identity.
Cassandro’s sexuality is a key component as he discusses how his attraction to the male wrestlers he saw drew him to his chosen career. His embrace of his homosexual identity and glamorous persona makes the film a celebration of diversity and queer culture in lucha, as well as a refreshing antidote to homophobia and hyper-masculinity which, while less ubiquitous as than before, still persist in some parts of the wrestling industry and its fandom.
Losier’s direction is compassion and understanding. The use of 16mm film heightens the vibrant colors of Cassandro’s world and gives a seventies home movie feel to the depiction of a performer who feels like he is from a bygone era. The lack of narration or talking heads allows for a closer connection between the audience and the central figure.
At 75 minutes, the film doesn’t outstay its welcome, even if some areas could have been explored in more depth.
Like Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, this film can offer something to fans and non-fans alike. Cassandro may not top many lists of favorite wrestlers, but this will enable a willing viewer to be drawn in by him in the same way I was nine years ago.