Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Death of Manolete, the Death of Bullfighting

Barcelona has held its last bullfight, so now seems like a good time to consider A Matador's Mistress (2008, dir. Menno Meyjes; original Spanish title Manolete).

How can it be that this film sank without a trace? I pay some attention to Adrien Brody's career, and I know for damn sure that many men pay rapt attention to Penelope Cruz's. The bullfighter Manolete is still a big, legendary deal in Spain, and Adrien Brody really does look uncannily like him. (Brody says that when he walked the Cordoba streets in costume, people would call out to him, "Manolete, good luck today!") But until last week, I'd never heard of this film.

I blame the title -- both the American (A Matador's Mistress) and the British (The Passion Within), which, I suppose, were thought necessary because Anglophones can't pronounce "MAN-oh-LETT-ay." But "A Matador's Mistress" sounds like something that should have a sweaty-looking Fabio on the poster, his pectorals busting out of a sequined jacket.

If they were going to insist on retitling the film for American release, they might at least have picked something with the word "death" in it, because that's what the movie is about. This is young Manolete's new manager, laying down the rules for his new prospect:
"No women."
"No women?"
"Because women make you love life."
"And that's bad?"
"In our line of work, yes."
And there's this line from Penelope Cruz, which was included in all the trailers:
"I'm just your mistress, death is your wife."
Which brings us back to the new bullfighting ban, because bullfighting has always courted extinction the way matadors court death. When your pastime is positively begging to be condemned as dangerous and irrational -- boxing is another good example, and come to think of it, so is smoking -- it's only a matter of time before the parliament of Catalonia bans your pastime. Nevertheless, danger sports keep springing up in one form or another, and they have always had their traditionalist defenders willing to praise something difficult to even justify -- perhaps because reactionaries, bullfighters, smokers, and boxers have something in common.

Unreasonable daredevilry, mental or physical, has its rewards. It cultivates agility, either of the kind displayed by Manolete or the kind displayed by defenders of irrational traditions (like Daniel Hannan here; apparently the MEP for south-east England loves euroskepticism and bullfighting). The bonds of brotherhood are always tightest among the unpopular and imperiled -- which is fine by me, because most of the time I'd rather have a brother than be a success. And there is usually some substance to the sport, or the tradition, that makes it attractive in the first place, apart from the allure of doom and danger. Bullfight is artful and symbolic, and beloved traditions usually are, too.

Manolete died in the arena, and bullfighting might be extinct by century's end. Both of those things are tragic, but neither one exactly bothers me. Something can be tragic and inevitable, or even tragic and appropriate.

P.S. Allow me to draw your attention to one particular shot: Adrien Brody holding Penelope Cruz's dachshund. It has been suggested that the woman in Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine had a ferrety character. Perhaps we can extrapolate from that.

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