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
1. Argo (Ben Affleck)
People have to stop talking about Ben Affleck “being on a hot streak” or “enjoying a purple patch” as a director and accept that perhaps he is just a really talented director. Maybe he didn’t ride Matt Damon’s coattails to that screenwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting all those years ago like so many joked. Argo, Affleck’s third film, is the year’s best thriller and mixes moments of extreme tension with some great laughs. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are fantastic as the CIA’s Hollywood collaborators.
2. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
A few eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Scorsese was going to adapt a children’s book as his next project, but with David Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret it made perfect sense. Hugo was Scorsese’s love letter to the early cinema. A visually stunning film it is also one of the few films that have been made which have convinced me there may be some merit to 3D.
3. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Of course, Hugo was not the only film in cinemas this year which celebrated the early days of cinema. Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist went one step further, engaging with the long-lost art of silent storytelling. This was such an ambitious project, but it was just so endearing and charming that it won people over. It also came out at exactly the right time for me as I’d recently been watching a lot of Charlie Chaplin films and my interest in silent cinema was peaking.
4. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
With MGM’s financial troubles we were forced to wait four years to see James Bond back on our screens after the disappointing Quantum of Solace, but boy was it worth the wait. Skyfall had everything you want in a Bond film, some great action sequences, a bit of humour, a fantastic villain. But on top of that, having a real filmmaker in Sam Mendes at the helm meant that the film also had an attention character development and an emotional depth that we’d never seen in a Bond before. Skyfall is not just a great Bond film, it is a great film.
5. Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
This was not going to be everyone’s cup of tea just because of the sheer volume of singing, but Tom Hooper’s ambitious film is a cinematic achievement, successfully translating one of the West End’s most successful and most tragic musicals to the screen. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway gave two of the year’s best performances in this gut-wrenching story of poverty and injustice, rebellion and redemption.
6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
The thing that struck me about this adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel was its stillness and quietness. You feel like it is moving slowly, but when you stop and think about you realise that a lot has been happening. We are so used to seeing spy movies in the James Bond mould, that the stillness Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is quite intriguing. An absolute all-star British cast led by a great performance from the chameleon-like Gary Oldman.
7. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson film through and through, which means some people will love it and others will hate it. Many of his usual collaborators are back with the key additions of Bruce Willis and Edward Norton. Anderson’s films are always deadpan and contain a touch of darkness, but this ups the ante on that. As always, the use of music, in this case Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams, is very clever. But for me, the sight of Harvey Keitel in shorts alone makes this film noteworthy.
8. The Muppets (James Bobin)
This may look like a strange pick alongside the other films on this list but The Muppets was a hard film not to love. No other film this year projected pure joy the way The Muppets did, and that should be celebrated. Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s screenplay showed a real love for these classic characters and, along with Bret McKenzie’s songs, found the perfect balance between nostalgia and contemporary comedy.
9. Looper (Rian Johnson)
There is nothing better than being genuinely surprised (in a positive way) by a film, and for mine Rian Johnson’s Looper was the surprise movie of the year. I saw it on a whim, expecting it to be a reasonably run of the mill sci-fi romp but what I got was the most original and interesting science fiction movie since District 9. The story of an assassin from two different periods in time going head to head with himself also engaged with that moral conundrum “If you could go back in time to when Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot was a baby, would you kill them to save the world future suffering?”
10. Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)
Martin McDonagh’s comedy isn’t going to appear on a lot of Top 10 lists but this is my list, dammit, so I’m including it. This sharply written comedy about a screenwriter who finds himself in a tough situation after his friend kidnaps the beloved dog of a local crime boss is a strong follow-up to McDonagh’s 2008 debut In Bruges. Yes there are some holes and some problems, but there are also some big laughs, with terrific comic performances from the always brilliant Sam Rockwell and the always quirky Christopher Walken carrying the film.
Not far off: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson), The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan), Shame (Steve McQueen), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher), The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
The Worst Movie of the Year: Act of Valor (Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh). Not even close really. This military propaganda film in disguise (and not much of a disguise at that) proudly trumpeted the fact that all the major characters were played by real life Marines as though that were a good thing. It wasn’t.
Cinematic Highlight of the Year: Getting to see Steven Spielberg’s Jaws on the big screen as part of its high definition re-release. It was the movie which started the whole blockbuster movement, and which launched Spielberg into stardom, and it still holds up. Similarly, it was good to see Titanic on the big screen again. While the 3D transfer didn’t do much for me it was interesting to see that enough time has passed that we are all over our anti-Titanic bias and can accept that, while it has its faults, it is actually a very good film.