The World's Most Gored Bullfighter Takes the Spotlight at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
If you’re looking for a subject for your next feature film, you could do a lot worse than the “Most Gored Bullfighter in History.” That would be Antonio Barrera—husband, father, matador—who decided to retire after a decades-long career that saw him get stabbed in the arena 23 times. Barrera’s story has all the trappings of your traditional underdog sports drama: Haunted by dreams of bullfighting glory that he’s never been quite able to achieve, he nevertheless decides to give up his life’s passion for the sake of his family… but not before going into the ring one last time.
Indeed, as director Ido Mizrahy admits, Barrera’s life would make for a great telenovela. But while we’re waiting for Hollywood to get on that, there’s Mizrahy’s documentary Gored, which had its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. A thrilling and thought-provoking meditation on frustrated ambitions, the documentary may be better than fiction.
Mizrahy is quick to establish that he doesn’t see Gored as a film about bullfighting, but rather as a character-driven doc about Barrera, in the same way fictional sports movies tend to be less about sports than they are about the merry bands of athletes chasing seemingly impossible dreams. “I’m not a bullfighting fan,” Mizrahy admits. “I mostly find it really difficult and brutal to watch… I’d be happy to see it phased out of the world.” Instead, as a filmmaker he was drawn to Barrera as a “tragic figure.” The son of an amateur bullfighter, Barrera dreamed of achieving bullfighting glory from a young age growing up in his native Spain. Though he lacked the grace, the dramatic flair, that marks Spain’s more popular matadors, he found a more accepting audience in Mexico, where he spent most of his career. (Says Mizrahy: “When you say Antonio Barrera [in Spain], they’re like ‘Who?’ and then ‘Oh yeah, right, that guy who gets gored all the time. Why are you making a documentary about him?”) But Barrera's “brute force” style, as Mizrahy describes it, and his willingness to court danger in the ring plays well in Mexico, where the fans “love that underdog, Rocky Balboa story.” Barrera's tendency to get gored, go to the arena infirmary, and come right back out to finish the job is "really crass" to fans in Spain, supposes Mizrahy, but "in Mexico, that’s a heroic story… There was a split second [when his success in Mexico got him an invitation to fight in Spain] where he almost could have been famous in Spain, but he just couldn’t handle it…. Was it luck? Was it that he wasn’t good enough? We’ll never know.”
Just as Barrera is “being marginalized and pushed to the fringes of” his beloved sport, says Mizrahy, “bullfighting as a whole is being pushed out of the modern world,” as illustrated by a jarringly effective scene late in Gored where we see a crowd of protestors outside an arena.“There’s a lot of friction between logical modern choices–being a father, animal cruelty, things that should make sense to all of us–and then there’s the thing that you’re raised on, you’re supposed to be, your culture and your tradition. And all those things come into battle in the story…
"The choice of Antonio to begin with was very anti-bullfighting, in a sense," Mizrahy continues. "He’s not the poster boy for bullfighting. He’s a guy that most of them don’t even really respect. He’s a guy who, through his eyes and his experience, you can actually show how brutal the thing is both ways, for man and animal… Even when we see [bullfighting] in a romantic way, because that’s how [Barrera] would see it, we always find a way to break [through that by presenting] a real, brutal moment, where death is happening, and it’s actually really ugly.”
Mizrahy’s own status as an outsider to the very insular world of bullfighting presented its own difficulties, as did the language barrier—“I don’t speak Spanish, nor does [Barrera] speak English.” Though the director had an in with Barrera through his writing/producing partner Geoffrey Gray, who wrote a piece on the matador for Sports Illustrated in 2011, Mizrahy still describes the experience of shooting Gored as one of “constantly chasing” his subject in the run-up to his final fight. Matadors “have their little entourages. It’s hard to track them down, and once you do it’s really hard to get in there… Most of the shoot we were basically just waiting in hotel lobbies or street corners and hoping that [Barrera] would walk by. And this is a guy we had been filming!.. At the same time, when you watch the movie, you’re like, ‘Oh, there are all these intimate moments.’ Why? Because once you got to that final bullfight or the days before, the hours before, the stakes were so high for him. Somewhere between the fear that his family’s there, the anxiety about retiring, and what’s he going to do in his final performance–all of a sudden the camera was the least of his worries."
Needless to say, if you’re particularly sensitive to blood and violence, Gored might not be the film for you. For those with stronger stomachs and a love of compelling film, it has one more Tribeca screening this Saturday, 4/25.