The Matador is a 75 minute documentary released in 2008. It chronicles the ultimately successful attempt by Spanish matador David Fandila who performs under the cognomen of El Fandi to appear in 100 bullfights in a single Spanish season. Only 12 matadors had achieved the feat prior to El Fandi’s attempt, though the great torero Enrique Ponce (still active) had done it 10 years in a row at the time the film was being made.
Bullfighting commonly puzzles or horrifies Americans. The spectacle of slaughtering an animal in front of a rabid audience is too much to digest. Though many of the same Americans have no trouble with hunting deer, rabbits, and birds for sport – animals which pose no risk to the shooter whereas the bull will certainly get to the matador, sooner or later, with a potentially lethal result. If the wounds inflicted by the fighting bull are not usually deadly they are always nasty. Even most Americans who don’t hunt eat meat and wear leather.
Toreros rarely die today because of antibiotics, modern surgery, and blood transfusion. There’s a plaque on the wall at the plaza de toros in Madrid – Las Ventas – that reads: “To Alexander Fleming with gratitude.” Fleming, of course, discovered penicillin. Las Ventas is to bullfighting what Yankee Stadium is to baseball.
The name itself – bullfighting – is problematic. In Spanish a bullfight is called la corrida de toros – literally the running of the bulls. The torero is not simply fighting the bull he’s going through a highly stylized ritual that has evolved over centuries. Americans also don’t know to what category the fiesta brava belongs. They commonly think of it as a sport. There’s nothing sporting about it. The bull is going to die. He hasn’t got a chance. There is a rare (or at least it should be rare) exception to this statement (the indulto) that I won’t elaborate on.
There’s also the problem that, like so much else in life, thing go wrong at a bullfight far more often then they go right. Everything you can think of can go wrong including the bull jumping into the stands. If you want to see a good bullfight it may take 10 or more afternoons in the plaza. Great ones are encountered a few times in the life of an aficionado. When thing go wrong in the arena the consequences range from the comic to the catastrophic. You won’t have to attend very many corridas to verify the above.
Another problem is the horses used in the corrida. They have been padded since the 30’s and are rarely injured, but there’s no denying that they are innocent and involuntary participants in the business.
Without a bull there’s no bullfight. The bull used in the ring (bos taurus ibericus) has been bred for centuries for one characteristic – to charge. Both the cows and the bulls of this bred possess this trait and will show it immediately after birth. For an extensive examination of this animal see About the Bull. Thus, especially when isolated from other cattle, the fighting bull will attack anything that moves. The closer the moving object, the more likely the bull will charge. The animal’s strength is prodigious. The injuries it inflicts when it does catch the man are awful.
Bullfighting has never been more popular in Spain than it is today. But it also has never been more unpopular. The important corridas sell out well in advance, but a majority of the country is probably ready to ban the fiesta; there is undoubtedly much more interest in soccer. The national TV network recently announced it would no longer televise bullfights, though private and local stations continue to program them. The European Union is embarrassed by it has tried to outlaw bullfighting, but it has been blocked by France. There are frequent bullfights in the Mediterranean region of France.
It’s obvious why animal welfare groups and other sensitive organizations oppose bullfighting. So why does it continue to thrive in the 21st century? It does so not only in Spain, but in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru as well. It’s always attracted major literary figures like Garcia Lorca, Hemingway, and Garcia–Marquez. Death in the Afternoon is still the best book in English on the subject though its protagonists are long dead. Painters like Goya, Manet, and Picasso have been fascinated by the subject. And of course there’s always Carmen. But the reason this primitive art survives goes to something elemental in human nature. Many years ago I was at a corrida where a three year old boy thought that the same bull reappeared to be fought six times during the afternoon. He was right. The bull is eternal, which is why he compels our attention.
The feeling one gets at a great performance in the plaza is similar to that felt at a great performance of a great opera. I don’t want to push this too far. There’s no Mozart or Verdi in the arena, but there is the equivalent of Di Stefano or Pavarotti. I’ve always thought that most opera lovers were potential aficionados even though this tendency was latent and thus never tested or realized in most. No doubt many will be outraged at the suggestion.
The color, the music, the frenzied emotion that roars from the crowd (Blasco Ibáñez said, “The only beast in the plaza de toros is the crowd”), the beauty in motion that may in an instant embrace catastrophe are all operatic in scope, grandeur, and menace. “Indefensible, but irresistible” is a Spanish adage about the phenomenon.
El Fandi did make 100 appearances in Spain. He continues to appear there now. He is an honest performer who openly admits that he lacks artistry. He is best at placing the banderillas; at this he is about as good as it’s possible to be. But a matador does not have to place his own banderillas. It’s an option he may assume or delegate. El Fandi is brave almost to the point of folly. After having his abdomen slashed open during a corrida in his hometown of Granada where he was facing all six bulls, he retired to the infirmary where, under local anesthesia, he had the wound closed. He then returned to the ring 45 minutes after suffering the injury and killed the remaining three bulls. The movie about this stolid performer is worth a look.
For artistry Sebastian Castella is the current numero uno. Born in France, he seems able to do the impossible with ease.
The best policy for someone who has never seen a bullfight and decides to do so is to go with someone who is knowledgeable and articulate. There are countless rules and traditions surrounding the corrida that though often observed in the breach may make the experience dizzying and opaque for a newcomer.