The passionate affair of a famous Spanish bullfighter and his hotblooded mistress amounts to lots of fighting and bull but not much else in Menno Meyjes’ period drama “Manolete.” Doing what they can with a soap opera-style script that never delves into the nitty-gritty of one of the “only real sports” (according to Hemingway), stars Adrien Brody and Penelope Cruz go mano a mano for 90 minutes and leave the ring barely breathing. Shot in 2006, this €21 million ($28 million) co-production is receiving a small-scale release in Gaul and other Euro territories; Stateside, a distributor has yet to shout “ole!”
Though budget problems are purportedly behind the long-delayed theatrical run (it preemed at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival), the film also has suffered the wrath of animal activists in France and Spain, who have called for its boycott.
In reality, the film includes only one actual bullfighting scene, in the closing reels, but it’s so fragmented into extreme closeups, dissolves and slow-motion (and was apparently shot without using real bulls) that the thrill is lost. Whatever art there may be in this controversial sport, it’s clearly not the focus of the screenplay by vet scribe Meyjes (“The Color Purple,” “The Siege”), who compresses historical events and characters into a sappy melodrama that relies on multiple flashbacks to keep things moving.
It’s 1947, and the 30-year-old Manolete (Brody) — whose revolutionary bullring techniques are never explained or revealed — is already a superstar in Franco-ruled Spain. Flashback to 18 months earlier: When Manolete crosses paths with actress Lupe Sino (Cruz), his team of handlers warn him to keep away, but the naive matador can’t resist. As the two spend more and more time together, their bedroom trysts grow more and more wicked (a laughable scene crosscuts between Lupe, dressed in lingerie, and images of a charging bull as she yells “Hurt me!”), and the champ begins to lose his fighting spirit.
Shuffling between the chaotic romance and the hours leading up to Manolete’s final bout, the film seems to portray Lupe as the Yoko Ono of bullfighting, responsible in large part for the great toreador’s downfall. But it leaves out perhaps the major reason why she was so hated by his entourage: She had left-wing sympathies while many of them were fervent supporters of the dictatorship. Without any political background, the most we can surmise is that Lupe is a “whore,” as everyone openly calls her throughout the film (though once, in a fit of rage, Manolete calls her a “stupid cow” — perhaps the ultimate bullfighter’s insult.)
Brody shares some physical resemblance with the actual historical figure (shown in opening newsreel footage) and has the grace and stoicism needed to depict a character who, despite the machismo of his metier, was apparently a sensitive and introverted person. But there’s a real mismatch here between his gringo accent and all the Spanish decor and costumes, while Cruz has clearly been cast to play the kind of red-hot drama queen she’s pulled off infinitely better in the films of Pedro Almodovar.
Tech credits — especially the art direction by Salvador Parra (Almodovar’s “Volver”) and colorful lensing by Robert Yeoman (“The Darjeeling Limited”) — are superb, but wasted on a movie that glosses over the very elements that would have made it interesting.