Very few animals have a chance to defend their lives that way.
“I always wanted to be a bullfighter,” David Fandila says. As he is sewn into his costume, the camera is tight on surfaces: golden brocade, the taut planes of his face, fingers in quick, deft motion. “The last moments before the bullfight are the hardest,” he says, “because you don’t know what will happen within an hour. Will you come back or not?”
Most stories of bullfighters attend to such ritual details, shorthand for courage, resolve, and focus. As fighters prepare for the “dance of death,” they see themselves within heroic traditions. Stephen Higgins and Nina Gilden Seavey’s documentary—premiering 3 May on the Sundance Channel—follows Fandila, known as El Fandi, as he presents himself in this way. But it also steps back, noting that his fierce dedication and desire for fame also allude to a broader cultural hunger for brutal and sensational risk: each encounter with a bull means he might be gored, his careful preparations simultaneously confirmed and undone in an instant.
It’s 2003, and Fandila intends to achieve a milestone this season, the completion of 100 corridas, something only 12 fighters before him have been able to do. He’s come a long way to get to this point. As Santiago Lopez recalls, “On my first day as David’s manager, I realized he knew absolutely nothing. But he was motivated.” This attitude carries Fandila forward with an inevitable-seeming force. With support from his former bullfighter father Juan and brother Juan Alvero, David trains his body and mind, concentrates on each day as it comes. His brother, dad says, is a “responsible person,” playing his “secondary” role without complaint. Juan Alvero is so responsible, in fact, that he left the Spanish ski team in order to travel with David on the road—driving, carrying luggage, and basically protecting him from diurnal minutiae. “In such a dangerous profession,” Juan Alvero says, “I make sure no trouble touches David.”
The Matador takes a similar tack. Experts discuss Fandila’s accomplishments alongside his celebrity, as these inform one another. Bullfight admirer Allen Clarke enthuses about the young fighter’s skills and persona as they appear inseparable. Unlike other superstars, he’s “quite a shy guy,” says Clarke, who was struck early on by the seeming change in Fandila when he watched the fighter step into the ring: “Something happened,” gushes Clarke, surrounded by his memorabilia—photos, posters, and tickets from fights past. Another aficionado, Jose Luis, explains his infatuation: “He’s made me feel 40 years younger, it’s so great to see a guy so committed!”
Like other fans, Clarke and Luis seek and project themselves in their object. As journalist Jose Antonio del Moral notes, a similar process shapes the profession itself, embodied here in the complex relationship between Fandila and Enrique Ponce, a star who is half a generation older. When Ponce describes his feelings about the fights, he describes as well a traditional set of assumptions, changing even as he speaks. “You never learn a lesson from one bull that applies to all bulls,” says Ponce, “The bull has to inspire you in some way, you have to like the bull. It’s like meeting a woman. You really only know what she’s like after you talk to her.”
For Fandila, such conventional rhetoric is only so helpful. He allows that critics are “entitled to their opinions,” but asserts, “There are much more primitive things out there. There are things I initially don’t like which I learned to appreciate by understanding them.” If The Matador doesn’t pretend to provide complete understanding, it does reveal multiple contexts. Fandila, for instance, sees his work in commercial terms: in order to be a star of Ponce’s stature, he must fight the “good” bulls, create exciting shows in eminent cities, evoke keen passions in his audience.
Fandila’s celebrity, the film suggests, looks backward and forward at once, premised on longstanding values while also needing to defend them. David’s own pursuit of fame is increasingly difficult, the film insinuates, because the very concept of bullfighting is coming under scrutiny. Journalist and editor Luis Agusti lays out the dilemma facing today’s matadors. “Many things about the corrida, the music, the beauty, the symbolism,” he says, “make you disposed to like it. But that doesn’t stop it being a brutality when you actually see it up close, with the animal in front of you.” He might add, the bloodied, abused, and eventually dead animal. Writer Elvira Lindo insists, “There are times when we should abandon traditions. We live in a world that gives excessive importance to traditions.”
The film shows bulls in various states: powerful in the ring, retired (and visibly scarred) on a rolling hillsides. Fandila narrates one long take, the camera pulling back from bulls in a green field: “When you see a bull that has so bravely defended its life and gets a pardon from the corrida,” he says, “Seeing one of those bulls in the countryside, I can’t explain it—the sense of inner calm they seem to have.” You might presume that such bulls are calm because no one is stabbing at them with espadas, but the romance of Fandila’s imagining is at once perverse and compelling.
Still, most of the bulls here appear in rings, snorting and charging or stamping—projections of the matadors’ selves, brave and wily and mighty. As crowds cheer and vendors sell cold drinks, the animal plays the role for which it has been bred, an opponent goaded into fighting, imagined by matadors and artists. Eduardo Lago describes the ways that bullfighting serves social and political purposes: “You must approach this as something truly on the margin of rationality,” he says. “On the margin of modernity, on the margin of our current morality, but which reflects a centuries long cultural history.”
More observational than overtly critical, The Matador doesn’t press the question, that such a “margin” might mark the limits of a culture’s self-image. It does reveal, however, that as violence so defines a conventional, familiar, and increasingly scrutinized masculinity, some “trouble” might touch David after all.