Gored is Ido Mizrahy’s disquieting documentary about Antonio Barrera, the most gored matador in modern history. Barrera has been “pierce[d] with a horn or tusk” a total of twenty-three times; eighteen of those witnessed by his wife (an ashen woman seated in the stands, expecting each day’s bullfight to be her husband’s last). That’s twenty-three times this particular toreador has been pierced with a horn of an angry, 500-pound bull, in the stomach or in the groin, lifted clear off the ground and tossed into the air like a ragdoll, stamped, kicked, and trampled upon before being left for dead. For most, once would be one time too many. Twenty-three times sounds like a death wish.
Mizrahy’s film opens in Leon, Mexico on December 12, 2012. “This was his final performance” announces a foreboding subtitle. That setup contributes significantly to the film’s uneasy vibe if you don’t already know the ending (I didn’t), but the director ups the discomfort level by sparing us few examples of Barrera’s bovine run-ins through unsettling archival footage.
Barrera’s father couldn’t cut it as a bullfighter, so he ushered his son into the bullring at an early age in order to vicariously play out his own dashed dream. Yet Barrera defends his father’s actions: “My father never told me: Let yourself be killed. I learned that on my own, to let myself die in the bullring.”
Barrera forged his craft in Mexico, but the lust for fame and prestige drew him to Spain’s bullfighting capital. While lacking the aesthetic grace of the Andalusian matadors, he more than made up for it by taking courageous, or perhaps ridiculous, risks. To be a star, one must eventually fight the terrifying El Alamo bulls, which are unusually large, with huge horns, and the inexperienced Barrera’s first encounter with one leaves him close to death, his femoral artery severed.
“Every time my heart beat, my blood splattered onto my face. And I realized I couldn’t get up. When they carried me to the infirmary, everyone was really nervous, but I was very relaxed. When it comes this way… when you’re bleeding to death… You die… peacefully… A peaceful death. A death… that’s beautiful.”
Time and again we see Barrera brutalized by a bull in the ring and rushed to receive medical attention, only to return, bloodied and emboldened, to finish the job.
Is bullfighting a sport, or a religion? Are matadors insanely brave, or merely insane? Where does this controversial and arguably barbaric practice sit with modern generations? Gored touches on these questions, but never attempts to answer them, choosing instead to focus on the man and his own murky motivations. I don’t get bullfighting myself and I’m none the wiser after watching Gored (and that’s not a slight to Mizrahy’s finely-honed documentarian skills). I do get one thing though: witnessing Antonio Barrera putting in a day’s work is not unlike watching Grizzly Man‘s Timothy Treadwell hunkering down with his bears.
(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth