Probably of all the matadors of history Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez (4 July 1917 - 28 August 1947) known as "Manolete" is the most famous. 'He rose to prominence shortly after the Spanish Civil War and is considered by some to be the greatest bullfighter of all time. His style was sober and serious, with few concessions to the gallery, and he excelled at the 'suerte de matar'--the kill. Manolete's contribution to bullfighting included being able to stand very still while passing the bull close to his body and, rather than giving the passes separately, he was able to remain in one spot and link four or five consecutive passes together into compact series. He popularized a pass with the muleta called the "Manoletina," which is normally given just before entering to kill with the sword. In addition to all of the major bullrings of Spain, he had very important triumphs in Plaza Mexico. He died following a goring in the right upper leg as he killed the fifth bull of the day, the Miura bull Islero, an event that left Spain in a state of shock. Manolete received his fatal goring in the town of Linares where he appeared alongside the up-and-coming matador Luis Miguel Dominguín, who, after Manolete's death, proclaimed himself to be number one. In response to Manolete's death, General Francisco Franco, then dictator of Spain, ordered three days of "national mourning", during which only funeral dirges were heard on the radio.'
Writer/Director Menno Meyjes ('Max', 'Foreign Student', 'Empire of the Sun', 'The Color Purple', 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', etc) seems to have taken that fact that all the world knows of Manolete and instead of creating a biographical account of the man's life he instead opted to provide a sensitive meditation about love and obsession and death. For many this film will not work as it is not a recreation of facts, either about Manolete or his lover Lupe Sino or the historical atmosphere of Spain at the time of the story, but for those who appreciate the music and the scents and the passion of Spain, this film will satisfy.
The film begins with the decision of Manolete (Adrien Brody, who looks very much like the character Manolete!) leaving his peasant life to go to learn bullfighting under the tutelage of Pepe Camará (Juan Echanove). Despite the fears of those who consider the young man not fit to enter the realm of Toreros, Pepe convinces Manolete to persevere - and to become a Torero he must avoid drugs, alcohol and women. But as Manolete enters the bullrings of Cordova and Madrid and Mexico he gains the status of a star and becomes infatuated with the beautiful Lupe Sino (Penélope Cruz). Despite Pepe's warnings the two become lovers, have moments of profound passion as well as moments of infidelity on the part of Lupe. Manolete is conflicted between the love of his mother and the love of Lupe and Lupe is afraid Manolete flirts with death each time he enters the ring. Finally in Linares in 1947 he competes with Luis Miguel Dominguín (Nacho Aldegue), is gored and dies from his wounds. The film ends with the famous march of the pallbearers bearing Manolete beneath a rain of red rose petals as the world mourns the death of a hero - and Lupe disappears into nothingness. No spoilers here because this all is a documented history that everyone knows.
The performance by Adrien Brody is subtle and underplayed adding to the dignity of a memory. Cruz is an exotic if overplayed Lupe. The cinematography by Robert D. Yeoman is breathtakingly beautiful and the mournful music by Gabriel Yared and Dan Jones is pitch perfect for the effect director Meyjes has created. As the credits roll at the end there is a hauntingly beautiful Canto Jundo sung by an unnamed female singer (later found to be Buika!). It is a perfect ending to this meditative remembrance of a hero. Grady Harp