Documentary portraiture often veers toward celebrity journalism, as a celebration and a tribute. It’s not surprising—a filmmaker’s choice of subject also involves the subject’s willing participation. Yet at its best that transactional element is built into the film, when the mutual affinity results in a participant’s frankness and a filmmaker’s insights and, furthermore, becomes one of the movie’s subjects. So it is with “Cassandro, the Exotico!” (which opens on Friday at Metrograph), the French filmmaker Marie Losier’s vigorously playful yet pain-streaked portrait of a lucha-libre competitor.
From the start, it’s apparent that “Cassandro, the Exotico!” is a handmade film; Losier is trying to connect with Cassandro on Skype, at first only getting his voice before getting his image on her computer screen (which she’s filming). Losier travels with Cassandro when he goes on tour in Europe (Antwerp, Paris, and London), rides in the passenger seat and films while he’s driving, joins him in the dressing room as he prepares for wrestling matches, and in his bedroom as he lays out his wardrobe and exercises to rebuild the strength in a grievously damaged leg. Losier is more than a first-person filmmaker—she’s a one-person filmmaker: she works alone, wielding the camera and recording the sound, and the tactile intimacy, the agile curiosity, the tender admiration that the film reflects are inseparable from the drama that she discovers.
Cassandro’s story involves pain and loss, ferocious determination and its price (both physical and mental), a private battle on the public stage, and a weary resignation and admission of defeat at a time of apparent triumph. Cassandro’s sport of lucha libre features wrestlers competing in elaborate masks, in matches that (though rehearsed and scripted) feature daring and dangerous acrobatics that take a horrific toll on the bodies of their performers. In the course of Losier’s filming, Cassandro says that he has been competing for twenty-seven years—and that, to preserve what remains of his health, he must now stop. He reveals his many scars and describes the many injuries that caused them; he shows his thick dossier of X-rays; he cites his hospital stays, describes his concussions and his nerve damage, displays his disabled hand, and, as a cautionary tale to explain his imminent retirement, says that he doesn’t want to end up like his trainer, another wrestler, who now uses a wheelchair.
Cassandro, whom William Finnegan profiled for The New Yorker, in 2014, was born and raised in El Paso, and mastered the sport and the art across the border, in Juárez. (His given name is Saúl Armendáriz.) His place in the profession is distinctive. As he tells Losier, gay men have long held a place in lucha libre in the role of “exótico,” but, he says, they were entertainers, character actors who merely adorned the competitive wrestling. But Cassandro, a self-described drag queen and an openly gay man, became a combatant whose strength, stamina, and craft rivalled those of anyone in the ring. In the early days of his career, he faced hostility from crowds and from fellow-wrestlers; over time, he became a star, and with his stardom came widespread acceptance of his sexuality and his persona. The circuit in which he competes, late in his career, is, he says, diverse, and also features transgender wrestlers. Moreover, the acceptance that Cassandro has found in the sport and in public is matched by a newfound acceptance that he has found in his personal life, in his reunion with his father, who, Cassandro says, was distant toward young Saúl and hostile to his sexuality, but who now is devoted to him, a loving father and a main source of support in his medical travails.
Cassandro speaks briefly to Losier of the sexual abuse that he experienced as a child, and more fully about his years of drug abuse. He still attends a twelve-step program, and, because of his avoidance of opioids, he avoids prescription painkillers, even after the surgeries that are a regular part of his professional life. He admits that he also lives with chronic pain—which, in the course of the film, contrasts poignantly with his thrilling displays of daring athleticism and his gloriously theatrical self-presentation. (At the same time, there’s a modest and handmade quality to his very profession—as when he joins his fellow-wrestlers in helping to build the prefabricated ring in which they’ll be fighting.)
Once described, he says, as the Liberace of the sport, Cassandro is a grand performer, both acrobatically and expressively. Losier shows him in rehearsal and in the ring, diving to the canvas from heights that would shatter mere mortals, tumbling forwards and backwards with a rubbery ease, slamming his body onto the mat with a furious quest for precision that means the difference between artistry and catastrophe in the public eye. As he prepares to enter the ring, Losier tells him, “Break a leg,” and Cassandro sharply responds, “You don’t say ‘Break a leg’ in lucha libre; you say ‘Good luck.’ ” In one conversation, Cassandro speaks of a disastrous match in which his injuries overwhelmed him; he was unable to walk at the end, and his colleagues carried him from the ring. Losier, speaking to him as to a friend, attempts to console and encourage him.
Cassandro is a master of costume and makeup. He enters the ring in a cape with a long train of shimmery and bejewelled fabric that, he says, was inspired by Princess Diana’s wedding. His lavishly and exquisitely confected physical image is matched by his charismatic presence; his spotlight seems to come from within, and Losier’s camera offers his art of the gesture, the pose, the expression, the spontaneous creation of an iconic moment and an intimate and florid showcase. His multifarious, polyphonically theatrical identity may be a creation of the virtual stage, the wrestling ring and its raucous surroundings, but it thrives on camera with the charismatic light of stardom.
There’s also a virtually metaphysical dimension to Cassandro’s struggle with his sport’s public and private rigors. He practices shamanic and traditional rituals, which, he says, help him to get through times when “physical pain and emotional pain is too much.” His solitary confrontation with pain (as in an extended sequence of his efforts to compete on a reconstructed and still-healing knee) is doubled by his solitude in sequences of spiritual devotion in the desert and of the ecstasy of religious chants and rites, as well as his solitary confrontation with a lifetime of trauma and torment that his performances both mask and overcome—and, to the discerning eye, embody.
Losier is a filmmaker who, like a mathematician, shows her work: the relationship on which the film is built is built into the film. Its photographic element, its sense of style, emerges from her experience and her perception, rather than being imposed from outside. What’s more, there’s something sublimely literal about the notion of Losier’s camera-eye; she made the movie with a handheld camera—of 16-mm. film, not video. The movie has handcrafted quality, an intimate texture as well as a built-in air of nostalgia. It evokes the present becoming past, and yet monumental, before Losier’s very eyes; she appears to be rescuing fragments of Cassandro’s career before it passes into legend. Her previous film, from 2011, is “The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye”; her new film is, implicitly, “The Ballad of Cassandro, the Exotico!”