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Risky Business

The Matador (2008)

David_Fandila (6)
Mauricio Berho/City Lights Pictures

“The Matador,” the new documentary by Stephen Higgins and Nina Gilden Seavey, differs pronouncedly from the better-known recent movie that shared its title – the Pierce Brosnan-Greg Kinnear dark comedy. For example, this is actually a movie about a Spanish matador – the enormously popular David Fandila – and the sport he practices. It’s interested in the uneasy, ongoing adaptation of the regal, old-fashioned sport of bullfighting to the post-modern, politically-correct world and the ways in which Mr. Fandila deals with his celebrity, not in approximating the dysfunctional buddy relationship at the heart of the fictional “Matador.” So, no one should get them confused.

The non-fictional “Matador” engagingly probes bullfighting’s precarious place in the 21st century while it follows the life in and out of the ring of its biggest star. Beautifully shot in the small villages, wide fields and bustling stadiums of the Spanish countryside, the film evokes the sport’s intrinsic place in native culture, where the sight of a matador waving his cape and dancing around a charging bull seems like the most natural thing in the world. At the same time, the filmmakers never avoid depicting bullfighting’s stunning brutality. They stay with most fights through the end, which comes when the matador either stabs the bull in its skull and kills it, or the bull gores the matador and potentially killing him.

Still, the filmmakers never really probe these issues in much detail. Although they sprinkle in some talking-head expert segments and a few shots of protesters, they're most interested in what lures a hip youngster to the antiquated, risky competition. Even that remains something of a mystery. Mr. Higgins and Ms. Seavey spend a lot of time following Mr. Fandila as he makes his way through throngs of fans with an entourage in tow and in the nervous moments before a fight. But when they get Mr. Fandila to actually speak about the sport, the young man is never especially forthcoming. To explore this subject in greater depth, the movie would have benefited from being fleshed out beyond its meager 74-minute running time. Yet, even if it doesn’t have all the answers, it’s worth seeing for the ease with which it plants you into a fascinating cultural time warp.


Opens on Oct. 31 in Manhattan.

Directed by Stephen Higgins and Nina Gilden Seavey; directors of photography, Christopher Jenkins and James Morton-Haworth; edited by Ian Rummer; music by John Califra; produced by Mr. Higgins and Ms. Seavey; released by City Lights Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 14 minutes. This film is not rated.


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