In his fifteen year career as a professional matador, Spaniard Antonio Barrera has survived 23 cornadas, or “hornings”, making him the most gored torero in modern history. His journey towards retirement in December 2012 is the subject of Ido Mizrahy’s new documentary Gored, which, after a hugely successful festival run last April (including winning Best Documentary at Raindance) has just been released on Netflix and iTunes in the UK.
It is not a documentary about the rights or wrongs of bullfighting, but rather, as the director Ido Mizrahy – who does not describe himself as a fan of bullfighting, but is not against it either – tells me, “about life and death, family, broken dreams”, and one man’s single-minded obsession with doing something he isn’t great at. As the Spanish bullfighting critic J A de Moral explains in Gored, he isn’t “fino, has no ‘aesthetic grace…he isn’t one of the artist matadors with an aesthetic purity from another galaxy”. He is, however, insanely brave, and is prepared to die every time he enters the ring.
Mizrahy explains that this is what drew him and Geoff Gray, his writing partner, to Barrera as a subject – the very fact he isn’t a poster boy for bullfighting insured an honest look at the ancient spectacle that would fully demonstrate its brutality. There would be no risk of the viewer getting caught up in the romance or artistry of it, not when, according to de Moral, the spectacle never stops being “a mere fight” and so cannot become “a tragic ballet of extraordinary beauty”.
Whatever your views on bullfighting, there is no denying that Antonio Barrera is a captivating subject: a brave, tragic hero, Ajax-like in his bravery and in his fate to never to be the best. He explains in Gored that there is nothing in the world he loves more than bullfighting; that he has never, not even with a woman, maintained a relationship so intimate as he has with a bull, and that it’s the most pure relationship he knows.
His long-suffering wife (the daughter of a fighting bull breeder), who has been with him through 18 of the 23 cornadas, is desperate for him to retire. But when she fell in love with him, she promised herself she “would never ask him when he would retire – never”. Now that Barrera has a family, however, he has finally decided to call it a day in Léon, Mexico. A 501 kg bull called “Bienvenido” will be the last he’ll ever fight. But will it be a relieved welcome back to the land of the living, or a final welcome to the death he’s cheated 23 times?
By the final frames, you’re still not sure which resolution, if any, has been brought forth by his last appearance in the bull ring. He has in theory survived and retired, and is now managing his good friend, the torero Morante de la Puebla (who incidentally cut off Barrera’s coleta – the small ponytail all toreros have – marking his retirement in Léon). Morante is one of the aforementioned “artist matadors from another galaxy”, and this new role allows Barrera to still be close to his beloved bulls, without offering his life to them.
The closing scenes are some of the most powerful in the documentary. Mizrahy shows us anti-bullfighting protestors outside Seville’s bullring during the spring feria – various young Spaniards standing around holding placards, and a girl with a megaphone shouting “bulls deserve to live, like us”. At this point, against the backdrop of Barrera’s heroics and contemplation of his own mortality, the protestors seem grotesque and incongruous; modernity jarring against not only the timeless beauty of Barrera’s wife in the next shot in her traditional flamenca dress, but also with the profundity of the film.
In the final few minutes, we see Barrera in his new life. He’s now an anonymous figure clad in a normal blue suit, walking through the crowds outside the bullring, behind the gran figura Morante, signing autographs and shining brightly in his matador’s “suit of lights”. We leave Barrera contemplating his future without the “driving force of his life”, asking “cual es mi ilusion ahora?”, or “what is my dream/what do I have to look forward to now?”
Mizrahy hasn’t heard from his protagonist since finishing filming. He has no idea what Barrera thought of the film or whether he’s even seen it. He describes him as “bull-like” in as much as if you’re not in his peripheral vision, he can’t see you and you can’t reach him.
A few weeks ago here in Mexico City, Morante de la Puebla performed the most beautiful “tragic ballet” of the bullfighting season at the Monumental Plaza de Toros. A few hours later, outside a hotel, I briefly locked eyes with Antonio Barrera. Morante was in the bar enjoying a drink after his successful afternoon, but Barrera was standing alone outside with the exact same lost, slightly haunted expression he has at the end of Gored – I fear he’ll never find an ilusion quite like the bulls but I’m confident he won’t stop looking.
Gored is now available on iTunes and Netflix. Find out more www.goredthemovie.com