Following hard upon The Artist, Blancanieves is the second silent black-and-white feature to emerge from Europe in a little more than two years. A pair of films don’t exactly make a trend, but Blancanieves has enough going for it to make you wish it did.
A major critical success in its native Spain, where it won 10 Goyas (the Spanish Oscar), including best picture, Blancanieves is different in tone from The Artist. The title translates as Snow White, and Pablo Berger (who made the wonderful comedy Torremolinos 73 a decade ago) has taken his inspiration from the bleaker aspects of that Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
Though there are humorous moments as well as warm ones, the overall feeling here is what Berger refers to as “gothic melodrama,” a choice that is largely but not entirely successful.
Unlike The Artist, Blancanieves is self-consciously modern, eager to show us scenes that would have made the classic silent filmmakers blush. So we get to see the blood and pain of childbirth and an amusing version of the kinky sex featured in films like The Night Porter. This is an interesting choice, but it leads to plot decisions that are not always effective.
Where Blancanieves does best is in its look, the overall way it’s made and, most of all, how well it has been able to re-create for modern audiences the silent cinema experience.
Filmmaker Berger understands that silent cinema is not a gimmick — it’s a different way of telling stories. Because it can’t count on words to carry the drama, it has to use a different cinematic language, one that depends on images, editing and music to create a level of emotion whose intensity invariably sneaks up and surprises us.
Blancanieves’ black-and-white photography, courtesy of cinematographer Kiko de la Rica, is quite stunning, capturing and emphasizing the dramatic lights and shadows that characterize the film’s careful depiction of Spain in the 1920s.
Helping the film feel quintessentially Spanish is the wall-to-wall music that has always been at the heart of a silent-film presentation. Composer Alfonso de Vilallonga employs everything from rich guitar to rhythmic clapping and flamenco dancing to immerse us in that particular time and culture.
The story starts in Seville in the early years of the 20th century, where the whole town heads for the Plaza de Toros Colosal to watch the great Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) fight the bulls.
Villalta is a great matador, with a beautiful pregnant wife (Inma Cuesta) to whom he is devoted. But a mishap in the bullring leads to tragedy: Villalta is seriously injured, and the shock of his accident leads to his wife’s death and the premature birth of their daughter, Carmen.
We catch up to 7-year-old Carmencita (Sofia Oria) the day before her first communion. She is living with her loving grandmother, Doña Concha (Angela Molina), because her reclusive father is a prisoner of his Dragon Lady of a second wife, Encarna (Maribel Verdu, memorable in Pan’s Labyrinth). As you might expect, there is more tragedy in store for Carmencita, and she is soon moved into the evil realm of stepmother Encarna.
Inspired by an image by Magnum photographer Cristina Garcia Rodero, Berger at this point involves Carmen with a group of six dwarf bullfighters (yes, they did exist in reality). This strand of the plot begins in an engaging way but goes in a bizarre direction that, though defensible, does not qualify as satisfying. In an attempt to be both modern and traditional, this gorgeously made film ends up betwixt and between.
In Spanish with English subtitles
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