Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Antonio Barrera before his final bullfight in GORED
"This documentary captures what may be the last of Antonio Barrera's bullfighting days at a time when the sport itself seems about to fade into history." | Photo: Boaz Freund

To those who don't feel it, the attraction of bullfighting can be difficult to explain. By contrast, even those who love it can usually understand something of the ethical reasons why others want it stopped. Like may torreros, Antonio Barrera comes from a long line of bullfighters - he has something to live up to, something essential to defining his masculinity. Unlike his ancestors, however, he doesn't want his children to be infected by the same passion. He understands his wife's unease, even whilst he has felt compelled to step back into the ring again and again during their marriage. This documentary captures what may be the last of his bullfighting days at a time when the sport itself seems about to fade into history.

Through a mixture of talking head interviews and fragments of archive footage, Ido Mizrahy tell the story of Barrera's career. During the course of it, the fighter has been gored no less than 23 times, often in ways that came close to killing him. On one occasion he was rushed into hospital and intubated because he couldn't breathe, only to recover consciousness, disconnect himself, return to the ring and kill the bull. he's not particularly graceful and he's not particularly innovative - the usual traits by which matadors are judged - but he's willing to take risks that nobody else will and to return again and again to take more punishment. In this way, he has come to enrapture audiences who are drawn to the masochistic as much as the sadistic side of the sport, to what Barrera describes as an act of surrender. After a serious goring incident early in his career he described himself as having lost respect for death. Having a family has made him see things differently, but it hasn't taken away the urge.

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Is this urge the product of a healthy mind? Mizrahy leaves that question open. Barrera's wife speaks like a woman who knew her husband was in love with someone else even before she married him. Her feelings will always be secondary. She's the daughter of a bullfighter and her father did all e could to keep her from falling in love with him, but in that clumsy, poorly thought out way that only makes what is kept out of sight seem more attractive. An accidental moment of eye contact was enough to ruin that plan. Now she lives, she says, with a lot of fear.

Since it uses archive footage rather than reconstructions, and since we know roughly what's going to happen before we see it, there's not much glamour to the fight scenes here. This will have the effect of making Barrera seem crazier to some viewers, since they will have to take his word for it as he talks about the thrill of the fight, but it also makes room for a degree of ambiguity that's important to the whole. Deftly, without pushing their point, Mizrahy inserts clips of protesters outside fights, and it will be a rare viewer who doesn't notice the suffering of the bloodied bull. At one point we look right into a bull's eyes and see something that seems very far from simple aggression, despite the generations of breeding aimed at cultivating that. Barrera, however, doesn't seem to see the bulls as individuals. He's focused on the Platonic form of the bull, on a sort of spirit animal who exists in every one of them and somewhere beyond. This is his enemy, his dance partner, his beloved.

Though its format is somewhat mundane and it deliberately downplays the thrills, Gored has an intriguing subject and seems likely to become a historically valuable document. If it's hard to understand bullfighting now, it will only get harder. But the matador, in his swirling cape and suit of lights, is somebody whose appeal may endure.

Reviewed on: 16 Feb 2016
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Gored packshot
Following Spanish bullfighter Antonio Barrera, holder of the dubious title of “Most Gored Bullfighter in History,” as he grapples with the end of his career.

Director: Ido Mizrahy

Writer: Geoffrey Gray, Ido Mizrahy

Starring: Antonio Barrera

Year: 2015

Runtime: 75 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2015

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