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Ella Es el Matator.

Ella Es el Matator (2009)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Celeste Carrasco and Gemma Cubero

Distributed by Women Make Movies

In Italian and Spanish, with English subtitles

Running Time: 62 minutes

Ella es el Matador is a stylish documentary on women in bullfighting that uses the ritual and prestige of this conspicuously masculine profession to explore the evolving self-image of post-Franco Spain. Crafted by Celeste Carrasco and Gemma Cubero, talented documentarists who move gracefully across international borders, the film follows the career of two 21st-century toreras determined to prove that women can perform as well as men at el momento de la verdad. Seen largely through the eyes (and understood through the voices) of its two central protagonists, Ella Es el Matador not only situates women within the profession of bull-fighting, but also locates bull-fighting in a new Spain that is increasingly integrated into a post-national, post-Christian Europe.

Carrasco and Cubero make good partners, Carrasco's theatrical sense (when away from the film studio she works with the Madrid Opera) augmenting the directorial skills Cubero brings from earlier work both in documentary and the fiction film. They first teamed under the directorial hand of Lourdes Portillo in Senorina Extraviada (2001), a powerful human rights documentary that inquires into unsolved crimes against women in the border city of Juarez, Mexico. Though quite different both in style and theme, Ella Es el Matador shares with the earlier production an interest in women at the margin, be it the marginalized status of crime victims or that of women determined to achieve lives beyond conventional gender roles.

Without directly addressing the flurry of animal-rights activism that in 2004 briefly made Barcelona a "bullfight free city," the film looks at bullfighting as a powerful symbol of national identity, yet one that seems slightly anachronistic and oddly positioned in a world committed to multi-culturalism and striving for gender equality. Cinematically, it is also gracefully fashioned, blending social commentary with the personal narratives of its protagonists, while enlivening both with the dark magic of the bullring. The details of this drama are vividly present: we watch as the magenta stockings are drawn tightly against the legs, the cape swirls in an energy-charged arc, the inevitable horns threaten, the sword is poised in a trained hand, which soon will be blood-stained. Meanwhile, at key moments, the long lens composition compresses the planes, drawing the antagonists together, wordlessly bringing home the excitement and peril the matador must certainly feel. Cubero and Carrasco also add to our sense of the politics of bull-fighting, the consignment of women to rural arenas and contests with inadequate bulls, as well as the implicit chauvinism of male bull-fighters like Enrico Ponce who says, probably with no malice intended, "the physical strength just isn't the same."

The filmmakers have chosen two protagonists who balance each other effectively, and together offer a relatively full-spectrum view of women in the profession. Eva Florencia, the novice, is an Italian, the child of a family hostile to bullfighting, though she herself sees "beyond the cruelty people always talk about" and is determined to "create something beautiful." In spite of arduous efforts, Eva fails to achieve her goals. Her counterpoint is Maripaz Vega, a native of Andalucia, whose mother and several male siblings all supported her bull-fighting ambitions. In the course of the film, we see her confirm her place as Spain's one active professional female matador, ultimately enjoying a triumphal moment in front of hometown fans in the massive stadium at Malaga. More problematically, we also watch her count the scars that disfigure an otherwise beautiful body and look on as she is grazed by bull's horns and borne from the ring on a stretcher. She knows that "death is always there, like a shadow that follows us." These scenes are respectful, but not romanticized or sensationalized. The filmmakers' glance is steady and sure, catching what Hemingway called "grace under pressure."

Of the two women, Eva is in the better position to represent a European perspective upon a trait of Spanish national culture that is increasingly seen as eccentric, perhaps a little perverse. One of the most touching early moments in Matador is Eva's break with her family, which comes as she runs away from home to train as a bull-fighter.

In this scene, the album photo of mother and child gives way through a slow dissolve to the rain-spattered windshield of her auto, the raindrops subtly suggesting the tears probably shed by both parent and daughter. Later, as Eva's father attempts to restore their relationship by attending her fights, he wonders aloud at what the audience sees in this spectacle and confesses his continuing sympathy for the bull. All this, we should remind ourselves, reflects the conflicted feelings of the Spanish themselves, whose federation of broadcasters in 2007 briefly opted to appropriate no funds for television coverage of bullfights, even though they are still an integral part of national events, like the two week San Isidro festival in Madrid. At the same time, in a larger European context, the French were prosecuting matador Denis Lore for organizing private bullfights in the south of France and London's Culture without Cruelty pushed into Spain itself with its broad mission to "demystify bullfighting." On the other side of the equation, however, the female matador remains a symbol of Spain's repudiation of fascism, because the ban against toreras was part of the counter-revolutionary agenda of Franco in the 1930s and was lifted in 1974, shortly after the dictator's death, thanks to the heroic protests of Angela Hernandez.

Eva's faltering career also provides occasion for some close scrutiny of continuing discrimination towards women in the bullring. Maripaz herself, who is shown mentoring the young women fighters, warns Eva she "will do herself no good" by fighting inferior bulls in negligible rural venues. But Eva has little choice, noting that the profession "is controlled by businessmen who take advantage of your dreams." This old-boys network often clusters women together, denying them pairings with male matadors who might enhance their drawing power. At one moment, an obviously ill-trained and frightened woman is thrust into the ring merely to fill out the program. When she performs badly, all the women on the fight schedule, including Eva, are tarnished by her incompetence.

Ella Es el Matador ends on a powerful and rather upbeat note, even though Eva must pack her "suit of shining lights" and never wear it again. She survives by reinventing herself as a painter, resolving to "face other bulls" without cape or sword. Yet at the mythic level, her art reinscribes the corrida de toros, returning us to the bull as a primal image of human challenge--old as the Minataur and intricate as his labyrinth. The imagery of these paintings gives Carrasco and Cubero near perfect closure, because this magnificent animal, her subject, which stands under a full moon and guards a mysterious space beyond, speaks richly for an archaic practice still charged with the fierce energy of birth and death and life.

James F. Scott

Saint Louis University
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Author:Scott, James F.
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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