Director: Pablo Berger
Starring: Macarena García, Maribel Verdú, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Sofía Oria
In 2011 Michel Hazanavicius’ homage to classic silent cinema, The Artist, rode a wave of critical acclaim all the way to the Best Oscars. It was the first silent film to win the award since … in …, and in the process it demonstrated that silent cinema as a medium still had plenty to offer and there was still a market for it. The advent of synchronised sound in cinema in the 1920s revolutionised filmmaking, and in the eyes of many it made silent film a redundant medium. But silent film is simply a different medium that offers a different experience. For Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger, watching Hazanavicius accept the gold statue for Best Picture and Best Director must have been a bitter sweet moment. On the one hand the success of The Artist demonstrated that a well-made silent film could still be very successful. On the other hand it ensured that despite the fact he had already been developing his own silent film, Blancanieves, for a number of years, it would always be read in relation to this other picture. But while The Artist may have paved the way to some extent for Berger’s film, there is no denying that Blancanieves is an amazing achievement in its own right.
Blancanieves reimagines the story of Snow White as a silent melodrama set in the south of Spain in the 1920s. Carmen, the daughter of Antonio Villalta – once Spain’s most famous bullfighter who is now a quadriplegic after an accident in the ring – is forced to flee her evil step-mother Encarna who is keen to rid herself of Antonio and his daughter so she can enjoy his fortune in peace. Carmen is taken in by a band of dwarf bullfighters. When they discover her talent as a matador they incorporate her into their act and she quickly rises to become a national sensation, much to the horror of Encarna.
Berger’s adaptation does away with all the supernatural elements of the story; there is no magic mirror, no enchantments and no spells. But despite this, it retains the sense of wonder and magic of a fairy tale. Blancanieves definitely aligns itself more closely with the tone of the original Brothers Grimm version of the tale. It is quite dark and tragic, and the film’s conclusion in particular is by no means sees everyone living happily ever after. This is no Disney fairy tale.
This is a completely different beast to The Artist. Hazanavicius’ film was an endearing, modern, love letter to the world of silent films. It was a joyous film which had a fun, tongue-in-cheek approach to its silence. Blancanieves is more of an homage to the silent films of the 1910s and 1920s, with its style and selection of techniques giving it the feel of an authentic product of that era. If not for some scenes in which Encarna penchant for sadomasochism is seen, which never would have made it past the censors in the early 1900s, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a 90 year old film.
The very concept of silent film is itself a misnomer. Sound, in the form of a musical score, has always played an important role in the cinema, even before the advent of dialogue in films, and this is no different in Blancanieves where the events of the story are brought to life by Alfonso de Vilallonga’s romantic score.
If this film has a fault, it is probably that it is about 15 minutes too long – even though a 105 minute runtime is hardly exorbitant by today’s standards – as a result of a slight imbalance in the story. Berger’s script seems more interested in setting up the story, establishing the characters of Carmen, Antonio, Carmen’s mother and Encarna and the relationships between them, than it is in actually telling the story. So it is not until about halfway through the film, just when you are starting to think it might be dragging, that the Snow White narrative we are familiar with really kicks in. However, the story is so beautifully told, and the performance of Sofía Oria as the young Carmen is so endearing that you are largely happy to go with it.
Blancanieves is a clever and interesting reimagining of a familiar story, a visually beautiful featuring some engaging performances and shows the simple power of visual storytelling. Somewhat ironically, given it is a dialogue free film, it was Spain’s official nomination for Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Academy Awards, though it didn’t make the final nominees list.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean