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Luis García Berlanga
José Luis López Vázquez,
As the title suggests, this film tells the story of an afternoon at the bullfight. Filmed largely at Madrid's Las Ventas bullring, with interior pick-ups shot at Estudios Chamartin, the movie is an interesting example of the popular entertainment of its day. The leaden, static Franco regime was deeply entrenched in power and the bullfight was hugely popular (though, as the film makes clear, starting to lose ground to soccer). Franco's apogee coincided with, and prompted, safe, anodyne popular drama of this kind.
A bullfight poster is being put up as the film begins, displaying as usual the names of the three matadors who will appear (and whose fortunes will form the heart of our story). Ricardo Puente (played by Domingo Ortega) is the senior torero, a haughty veteran whose arrogance is commensurate with his talent. In second position is the likeable Juan Carmona (Antonio Bienvenida). Gifted enough to rival Puente, and young enough still to attract the attention of promoters, Carmona knows that an outstanding performance today will earn him a lucrative South American contract for the coming winter. He is "at the pinnacle of his art".
The third matador is taking his 'alternativa' today. he will be formally admitted to his bullfighting doctorate in the ring, and so will become a full torero. Luis Montes, played by Jesus Tordesillas, is the tall young hero with the matinee idol looks. He is watched by his father, who was a bullfighter before him, and the beautiful Ana Maria (Encarnita Fuentes), the sister of Carmona, who is in love with him.
As the matadors vie for glory in the ring, a neat sub-plot involves Manolo the street urchin. Just as Montes is entering the charmed circle of maestros de tauromaquia, Manolo is using his determination and innate guile to get into the bullring without a ticket. This section is necessary, because it endears Manolo to the viewer, in preparation for what is to come.
Manolo is an 'espontaneo', one of the dirt-poor youngsters who hopes to make it as bullfighters by leaping into the ring uninvited in the course of a corrida and taking on the bull. The spectators applaud as Manolo pluckily passes the beast, but matters take a horrific turn when the bull catches and tosses him. What looks like genuine footage of a real-life espontaneo being impaled on the horns is matched flawlessly with the fictional material.
Emotional light and shade are skilfully handled in this pleasant film, and good-natured fun is poked at foreigners, because of their ignorance of the bullfight. French tourists call matadors "toreadors" (an absolute no-no), and pass through the turnstiles singing the march from "Carmen". The vapid blonde French actress who is honoured with Carmona's cape forms a running gag with her brainless questions and faux-pas. Another of the 'character' jokes is the little boy whose father has brought him to Las ventas to educate him in tauromachy, but who much prefers 'el futbol'. This was the age when Real Madrid totally dominated European soccer, and the ball was beginning to eclipse the cape as Spain's national pastime.
It is hard to work out how artifice has been blended with genuine bullfight footage. Some of the pick-up shots are obviously studio inserts (eg, the smiling close-up of Carmona, garnering applause) but the fight scenes are matched flawlessly with shots of the actors, and the whole thing forms a remarkably seamless narrative.
As each bullfighter takes on his first bull, Puente performs a series of cold, elegant mariposas and carmona matches these adornos with his own sequence of media-chicuelinas.
Life and death form part of the story, and are balanced skilfully. There is balance, too, in the thematically opposed dolly shots along the barrera, showing first the crowd's antipathy towards Montes, then their warm appreciation of his triumph with the second bull.
My only quibble is a minor one. In a film which clearly knows its bullfighting, why is Montes shown donning his traja de luces in his parents' living-room?
Verdict - Pleasing Spanish bullfight movie dating from the heart of the franco era.
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