If your idea of wrestling is still informed by memories of ITV’s World Of Sport in the 1970s and 80s, Cassandro could hit you like a Big Daddy splashdown.
This hugely entertaining biopic is set in the world of Mexican wrestling where agile grapplers perform astonishingly athletic feats.
As in the British version, the outcome of a Lucha Libre bout is always arranged in advance, but there’s nothing phoney about Gael Garcia Bernal’s touching and impressively acrobatic performance.
Saúl Armendaríz is the gay Mexican-American grappler who shot to fame in the ‘90s as the ‘Liberace of Lucha Libre’.
The drama begins with Saúl (Bernal) working at an El Paso car wash by day, then making regular night-time trips across the Mexican border to perform as El Topo (The Mouse) in a rundown Mexican venue.
Playing on his diminutive stature, promoters keep pitching him against man mountain Gigantico (played by one of the film’s real-life wrestling stars) who has little time for theatrics.
Tired of being instantly overpowered, Saúl seeks out the help of famous wrestler Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez) who competes under the moniker Lady Anarquia.
After teaching him slick new moves, she persuades him to play the ‘exotico’, a stock character whose role is to puncture the testosterone-fuelled theatrics by flouncing around the ring while mocking the macho fighters.
The crowds love an exotico but shower them with homophobic abuse. The rules of Lucha Libre demand that order must be restored by the exotico’s inevitable defeat.
The jeers turn to cheers when Saúl makes his barnstorming acrobatic debut as Cassandro. So promoters decide to flout tradition by letting him win. A star and an unlikely gay icon is born.
Bernal keeps us rooting for the underdog with an acrobatic turn in the ring and a soulful performance alongside an excellent Perla de la Rosa who plays his mum Yocasta.
We learn that Saúl came out at 15, leading to estrangement from his religious father Eduardo (Robert Salas).
The film works as a family drama as well as a rousing underdog tale. Bernal body slams them both, holding us in his vice-like grip throughout.
Cassandro, Cert15, In cinemas now, on Amazon Prime Video from Sep 22