Monday 18 May 2020

Submission: "Cassandro the Exotico!"

By a happy coincidence, the first of this week's MUBI premieres Cassandro the Exotico! picks up where the TV we've been watching over the past few weeks has signed off (or logged out), with an introductory Skype conversation between the filmmaker Marie Losier and her subject. This is the well-kempt wrestler of the title, who looks as if Eddie Izzard had gone to Freddie Starr's hairdresser circa 1984 and bills himself, rather fabulously, as "the Liberace of lucha libre". It's an innately colourful world for any filmmaker to enter for any length of time - as Jared Hess's underseen comedy Nacho Libre knew - and doubly so when your fighter of choice is an openly gay Mexican who competes both solo and as part of a crossdressing tagteam. When Losier finally arrives in person at Cassandro's side, she finds him more than willing to put on a show, flexing in his shorts as a prelude to flaunting his war wounds, and entering gamely into staged dream sequences in which he stalks the streets of his hometown after dark in full ring regalia. The clips Losier provides of Cassandro's day job - replete with luchadors flinging themselves into the crowd and off lighting rigs - are tremendous, and further proof of the athleticism (and balls) such entertainments demand. Here, in short, is a man who was born to appear before a camera sooner or later. Is it a pity, then, that the camera that shows up in Cassandro's backyard is timid and oddly incurious, all too willing to take its subject at something like face value?

Losier gives the film an appealingly hazy, home-video look (rounded Kodachrome frames, washed-out textures that make footage shot in the mid-2010s look like offcuts from the opening credits of The Wonder Years) and from time to time she stumbles across an image that is both beautiful and bathetic. As we watch Cassandro pegging out the flowing cape and train he wears to enter the ring out to dry on a washing line, we start to get a feel for what this man brings to his arid and impoverished surrounds, the everyday heroism he's come to represent. Too often, however, we find Losier meekly following her subject into the world, falling in lockstep with the established cult of Cassandro. There's a weird moment during that Skype interview where the wrestler is clearly texting off-camera, the director's own questions requiring no more of him; and after the bombshell revelation that he was sexually abused as a child, you wait for a follow-up inquiry... but nope, nothing. It could be that Cassandro has shook this off as he has his other slights and injuries, but surely a man who's survived countless surgeries and been prepared to fling himself off a top rope night after night would be prepared to discuss this formative subject in a little more depth?

I wonder whether we're entering a dangerous period for the documentary form, in which subjects offhandedly lay claim to traumas filmmakers feel they can't broach or investigate, lest they come across as triggering, exploitative or in some other way insensitive. This is not the only recent non-fiction where personality has been allowed to trump journalism, where both filmmaker and viewer are supposed to feel grateful for the access - which is why Cassandro the Exotico! tails off so dramatically in its second half, even permitting the wrestler to stage his own funeral before the closing credits roll. As portraits go, it's one that's been heavily determined by its subject; he says time's up, and that's that. As he approaches his twilight years (and the spectre of one final leap into the unknown, so superbly chronicled by Darren Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler), Cassandro is quite the personality, evidently a good deal of fun to be around, and it wouldn't surprise me if some still applauded Losier's approach, how it allows this old survivor to tell his own story, and accepts him for who he is. "I wish I could give you a kiss," the director sighs during a low spot in that Skype interview, in a flagrant breach of directorial objectivity. For better and worse, her film - less journalism than a form of devotional fan art - is that smacker.

Cassandro the Exotico! is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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