I’m vegan. I think cruelty to animals is unnecessary and unjust. I don’t eat animals. I don’t wear them. And I don’t kill them for sport. However, Ella Es el Matador isn’t a film about animal rights, and treating it as such does it an enormous injustice. I don’t believe in prioritizing a conversation about cruelty enacted on bulls over one about cruelty enacted on women while discussing a beautiful and melancholy film exploring the world of bullfighting through the eyes of female matadors—so I won’t.
Ella Es el Matador is intentionally disturbing, but not in a graphic way. While blood does appear on occasion, what I found weighing more heavily on my mind was sadness. The bullfight is not simply a sport; it is a metaphor for the sexism and machismo which oppresses women who dare to enter this traditionally male domain. Bullfighting is a business run by men, which functions just like any other, and as the female matadors make clear, if the men don’t want you in the spotlight, they have the power to keep you out of it. World Class Matador Enrique Ponce puts it bluntly by saying that women who choose to be matadors should be given praise and respect for taking on the bull, but they are no match for men.
Filmmakers Gemma Cubero and Celeste Carrasco do a nice job allowing the stories of the women in the film to unfold, and though the focus is on two women in particular— seasoned bullfighter Mari Paz Vega and newcomer Eva Florencia—the audience is aware that these two women’s stories are simply two of many. The viewer learns of the history of women in this notorious pastime, how women’s ability to participate was stunted by Spain’s alternating liberal and conservative regimes, which forced them to leave their homeland for a career in the more welcoming scene in Latin America. We hear about the victory gained by feminists who finally won the legal right to equal participation, and the limits of that legislation amidst social inequity.
The artistic quality of the film was moving. Aside from the elaborately decorative “suit of lights” worn by the matadors and the portable altars used for prayer before a fight, the viewer is given a glimpse of Eva’s near tangible love of bulls through her numerous paintings of the creature. We are treated to a moonlight serenade of the beast that calls upon the tradition of years long since gone. We are shown scars of the battles where the matador lost to the bull, an anguish that is more than just physical.
I can’t say Ella Es el Matador has convinced me to turn my back on the squeamishness I feel about this macabre and ethically unsavory sport, but I have a newfound respect for some of its participants—animal and human.
The film debuted September 1st on POV. Check your PBS listings for a chance to watch it.