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November 6, 2008 |

By John Williams | Film | November 6, 2008 |

In Death in the Afternoon, his lengthy rumination on a sport he loved, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “…it is pride which makes the bull-fight and true enjoyment of killing which makes the great matador.” There’s plenty of killing in The Matador, a documentary about the young, handsome David Fandila (“El Fandi” to his adoring crowds), but the movie does just enough to complicate our sense of where the “true enjoyment” emerges.

At a scant 74 minutes — including a few scenes that could have easily been left out — The Matador doesn’t make a strong case for itself as a feature-length film. It attempts to present Fandila’s story in a traditional dramatic fashion, by following him on his drive to perform 100 fights in a season, something only 12 previous matadors have accomplished. But the structure of the movie only adheres to this quest loosely, and by the end it seems an afterthought. We go behind the scenes with the Fandila family, but there is nothing riveting about them. David’s brother sacrifices to help him. His mother is greatly concerned about his safety. His father is proud.

Away from the ring, David himself is shy and plain, clearly not a bloodthirsty guy in everyday life. In fact, he sometimes seems gentle to a fault. He quietly offers a defense of the sport as a timeless custom, but his voice lacks the passionate boil of his opponents, who hold signs and chant that torture is neither art nor culture.

In the arena, David is transformed. The Matador is worth seeing for the fight sequences alone. If you have the stomach for them. Fandila’s style — which he admits is more improvised than classical, to his chagrin — is stylish, thrilling, and always crowd-pleasing. The fights are expertly filmed, and they show the full, gruesome spectacle to audiences that may only know the flashier, cape-driven moments of the event. To be aware that all the bulls inevitably die is different from watching them die, in stages — pierced by others to weaken them for the bullfighter, then pierced repeatedly by the matador with short spikes that hang from its body as it makes final attempts to remain standing, and then finally run through, in the fight’s climactic moment, by a sword in the back. And even then, death does not come immediately.

Even the sport’s proponents admit that this is pure brutality, and that it has to be approached as something “truly on the margin of rationality.” One of the many journalists and aficionados featured in the movie deeply intones that the matador “confronts death for us.” It’s a metaphysical explanation for the event’s appeal, no doubt. But while it’s undeniable that the presence of an enormous, conscious threat distantly recalls the more primal part of our existence, death could be confronted by playing in traffic, or diving off incredibly high cliffs, or any other number of risky activities that don’t involve the slow and inevitable murder of an opponent. El Fandi makes the accurate point that turkeys get carved up for holiday dinners, but even the vast majority of meat eaters would admit it’s a sign of our graciousness that the turkey is not awake for the experience.

In one cheekily edited moment, a critic of the sport claims that in modern times, bullfighting is “condemned to die.” After a quick cut, someone else informs us that bullfighting has never been bigger. In this way, the movie is about the polarization between ritual/authenticity and modernity/sensitivity, and how the temperature of that battle is raised in the 21st century, as one faction clings to deep history and the other tries to wish it away. It is to The Matador’s credit that neither side is allowed a definitive word, but it won’t be only lifelong tree-huggers who come away disturbed. It’s easy — and breathtaking — to see the bravery and beauty in the matador’s dance. It’s much harder to see anything beautiful in his partner’s fall.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

I Killed a Bull Just to Watch Him Die

The Matador / John Williams

Film | November 6, 2008 |

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