‘The Matador’: The bull by the horns

October 31, 2008


He may be unknown in the United States, but David Fandila is a staple of the Spanish sports pages – and those in South America. A leading matador in Spain, he once fought six bulls in one afternoon – the final two after a 45-minute break to sew up his leg where he had been gored.


Director Stephen Higgins’ documentary, “The Matador” (not to be confused with the dark 2005 Pierce Brosnan comedy of the same name), is an intriguing entrée to the world of the man known to his fans as El Fandi – the top-ranked bullfighter in Spain. Higgins follows Fandila through the 2003, 2004 and 2005 seasons, as he attempts to reach the goal of completing more than 100 corridas in a single season. It’s a journey that takes him around Spain and even to South America.


Higgins’ bullring footage reveals Fandila as a fiery, inventive, fearless athlete, who tries to impart as much artistry as athleticism to his performance. There are breathtaking moments of daring (though, to be sure, some will be disturbed by the sequences in which he kills bulls with a sword-thrust).


Higgins doesn’t ignore the animal-rights opponents of bullfighting. He gives them their moment, shows footage of Fandila confronting them after a bullfight and lets them state their case. But this is Fandila’s film, so while the activists aren’t dismissed as kooks, their inclusion seems more pro forma than anything else.


Still, it’s always fascinating to look inside a world we otherwise wouldn’t get to see.


Fandila himself is something of a cipher: a handsome, well-toned young man (he turned 24 while this was shot) who seems to have few interests outside of staying in condition and plotting his schedule to further his career. But who can blame him for being so narrowly focused? As daredevil professions go, this is among the most dangerous, offering a confrontation with mortality everytime the matador steps into the ring. It’s also especially photogenic, a fascinating blend of old world ritual and pageantry that somehow continues to thrive in the modern era.


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