Saúl (Gael García Bernal) is a gay wrestler who performs for his local lucha libre matches. Wanting to evolve from his typical role as a El Topo, he develops the persona of Cassandro, a flamboyant “exótico” whose feminine energy taunts his more macho luchador opponents in the ring. Exóticos usually elicit boos from the audience and ultimately lose the match. But Cassandro wants to change that. As Saúl/Cassandro works with a new trainer on his skills, he grapples with his relationship with his in-the-closet boyfriend, his distant and homophobic father and his ailing mother.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams, Cassandro is based on the true story of wrestler Saúl Armendáriz, known as the Liberace of lucha libre. Gael García Bernal delivers one of the most spirited performances I’ve ever seen. He truly embodies this character, giving Saúl gravitas and Cassandro verve. The film conveys a strong message of acceptance and joy in individual expression. This one will be a crowd pleaser for sure.
Cassandro premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
This crowd pleaser will have viewers reaching for the tissues. Directed by Christopher Zalla, Radical is based on the true story of Sergio Juárez Correa, a teacher from Matamoros, Mexico who made a huge impact on the sixth grade students at Jose Urbina Elementary School. Eugenio Derbez stars as Sergio, a newcomer to the area who has a “radical” teaching methodology. When he takes over the sixth grade class of an impoverished school, he throws all the rules out the window. His unconventional methods spark the curiosity of kids who were otherwise expected to drop out of school within the next few years.
The movie spotlights three kids in particular. Nico is being groomed to become part of the local drug cartel. But he soon takes an interest in science, especially in boats, and hopes he can stay in school a bit longer to avoid a life of crime. Lupe is the oldest sibling of four and the expectation is that she help her parents with the care of her youngest. She is really interested in philosophy, especially the work of John Stuart Mill, but her intellectual journey puts her at odds with her family’s expectations. Sergio’s top student is Paloma, a bright young mind with an interest in aerospace engineering. She shows a lot of potential but is beholden to her responsibility as the sole caretaker of her sick father.
Eugenio Derbez really shines as the Sergio. He conveys a great sense of empathy and caring that demonstrates the impact a good teacher can have on students. The film as a whole really celebrates education. It also offers a sobering revelation that potential does not necessarily guarantee opportunity.
I could see Radical movie being the next CODA. However, given the limited appeal of foreign-language movies—Radical is in Spanish—I worry that not enough people will watch this terrific film. Radical is a bit on the longer side and could use some trimming. The ending is both awe-inspiring and heart-breaking. My hope is that this reaches a broader audience and that this will help the school get the resources it needs.
Radical premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Clara (Penelope Cruz) and Felice (Vincenzo Amato) move their family, including their three young kids, to a new apartment building. It’s the 1970s and the city of Rome is in flux. New construction attracts wealthy families and transient workers who live almost side by side. On the other side of the reeds outside the new apartment building, Adriana (Luana Giuliani), who now goes by the name Andrew, meets Sara (Penelope Nieto Conti), a young Romani girl. Sara accepts Andrew as a boy and they form a tender bond despite the social expectations that threaten to keep them apart. At home, Andrew’s family is falling apart. Felice cheats on Clara and beats her. He also refuses to accept Andrew’s identity as a boy. Clara escapes her tumultuous marriage by tapping into her inner child and connecting with her children through music and play. Throughout it all Andrew struggles to shed his identity as Adriana and be embraced as his true self.
Directed by Emanuele Crialese, L’Immensità is a heartfelt coming-of-age story that treats its subjects with great reverence and care. It’s as much a story about a preteen coming into his identity as it is about a grown woman’s struggle with adulting. There are a handful of musical numbers that, while not really necessary, add levity to the film. Cruz and Giuliani both deliver strong performances. The audience is given enough context about the characters’ situation and the social atmosphere of their given place and time while still maintaining an air of mystery.
L’Immensità is an autobiographical story about director Crialese’s own upbringing. When this film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Crialese revealed that he is a transgender man and that Adriana/Andrew’s story is his own. While I would have liked to have learned more about Andrew’s trans journey, I also appreciated the delicate handling of the matter. It’s an important part of the story but not the film’s main focus. L’Immensità reminded me a bit of Céline Sciamma’s film Tomboy (2011) which also explores gender identity in a similar way.
L’Immensità was screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Set in Beirut, Lebanon, Warsha follows Mohammad (Khansa), a construction worker tasked with operating one of the tallest and most dangerous cranes in the city. Isolated and far away from his fellow workers and the city below, Mohammad has a moment of freedom, tapping into his most secret desire. The climb up to the crane and the fantasy sequence were absolutely breathtaking. I enjoyed the LGBTQ angle. Highly recommended.
Warsha screened at the 2022 Nashville Film Festival.
Eat Pray Love (2010) meets Corpus Christi (2019) in this tender drama about a middle-aged woman reclaiming her life after years of service in the church.
Set in Malta during the 1980s, Carmen stars Natascha McElhone, the sister of the local priest. Per Maltese customs, when a priest is ordained, his oldest sister must make the sacrifice of abandoning any hopes of a career, relationship or family of her own in order to take care of her brother in service. Carmen has done since from the age of 16 until 50. When her brother passes away, she creates a new life for herself. With her newfound freedom, she pretends to be the new priest and takes confessionals in secret. She spends her days people watching and connecting with the locals. She forms a romantic bond with Paulo (Steven Love), a young Maltese-Canadian man to whom she tries to sell stolen goods from the church. Soon enough, Carmen’s new-found joie de vivre starts to have an effect on the community around her.
“Carmen is inspired by an old Maltese tradition… Many women’s voices were squashed, and their spirits dampened. This happened to my Aunt, now 95 years old… This film is for my Aunt and all the women who’ve suffered this tradition under the patriarchy.” — director Valerie Buhagiar
Directed by Valerie Buhagiar, Carmen is brimming with optimism despite the trials and tribulations endured by its protagonist. Natascha McElhone is absolutely charming as Carmen. She imbues the character with a sense of curiosity and wonderment that is quite fetching. When Carmen comes out of her situation, she receives a makeover and we see a raven haired beauty dressed in bright red emerge from her cocoon. Malta is its own character depicted both with a sense of beauty and a sense of social injustice. The plot can get a bit murky but doesn’t take away much from the overall experience.
Carmen is currently in theaters and available to rent on VOD.