While I know that it is only January, I think I may have already found my favourite movie of 2013 in Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves”. The film is actually the third adaptation of the Snow White story that has been released in the past twelve months and for me, it is also the best and most original. What makes “Blancanieves” stand out from the other two films is that it is a silent film, shot in glorious black and white, with the story being transported to 1920’s Spain and the art of bullfighting as its backdrop.
Born the child of a famous bullfighter and a flamenco dancer and singer, tragedy has always followed poor Carmen. Both her parents suffered terrible tragedies on the exact same day which also happened to be the day of Carmen’s birth. Her father, Antonio Villalta, is gored by a bull and paralyzed from the neck down, while her mother after witnessing the horrific attack unexpectedly goes into labor and ends up dying during childbirth. With so much sadness happening on the day of her birth, does this signal the kind of life Carmen is ultimately going to lead? Abandoned by her father, who finds it hard to look at the young girl, Carmen is brought up in a loving environment by her grandmother. She is a happy girl but always wanting the lost love of her father. On the day of her communion while in high spirits dancing with her beautiful grandmother, tragedy yet again strikes the young girl, as the old lady’s life succumbs to a heart attack. This leads to Carmen having to move in with her new gold-digging stepmother (her father remarried to one of his nurses, Encarna), who immediately forbids her to enter the second story of the house (where her father resides) and sets her to work doing all of the hardest chores she can find. Life is tough for poor Carmen until one day while chasing her pet rooster she ends up in her father’s room. Their eyes meet and it is like the past is forgotten and father and daughter immediately find a love for one another. Their relationship together brings them both back to life as they suddenly learn to have fun again with Antonio Villalta sharing his knowledge and passion for bullfighting. This relationship continues to grow for years (in secret because Encarna forbids it) until the day Antonio dies from “accidently” falling down a staircase. The very next day whilst sent on an errand to her father’s grave, Encarna tries to have the now teenage girl killed, but unknown to Encarna herself, the assassination attempt on Carmen’s life had failed after a band of dwarves saves her. After waking up with no memory of who she is or any of her past, the dwarves decide to name the girl “Snow White” after the classic fairytale, but what will happen when the evil Encarna finds out that Carmen is not dead and is actually the famous “Blancanieves” (Snow White)?
“Blancanieves” is a passion project for its director Pablo Berger, who spent eight years writing and trying to get the financing together to make the film. Imagine his surprise when as he was finally shooting his dream project, another film called “The Artist” was released to massive acclaim. You hear a lot of directors taking about luck contributing to their own success; being in the right place at the right time, but for Berger he appears to be so unlucky with his timing of “Blancanieves”. Who would have thought another director would even attempt a film in the style of the dead art back when he started this project eight years ago? While this can obviously not be proven, I am sure that if “Blancanieves” was released before the Academy Award winning “The Artist”, it would likely have received the recognition that film did. As it is, “Blancanieves” has barely been a blip on the cinematic radar and I am sure there will be some that assume that it is riding on the coat-tails of “The Artist”. Sadly the film didn’t even garner a “Best Foreign Film” nomination at this year’s Academy Awards even though it was chosen as Spain’s representative for the award. Do not get me wrong, I am a massive fan of “The Artist” but “Blancanieves” is clearly the better film and it is such a shame that it will not get the recognition the previous film did. Also what are the odds that the year you finally release your dream project that TWO other “Snow White” features are released also. Let me reiterate, Pablo Berger has been damn unlucky.
Still that doesn’t take away just how magnificent a film “Blancanieves” really is. It is a truly beautiful and amazing film that once again brings magic back to the cinema. From the beginning to the end this is a glorious film and I loved seeing the “Snow White” fairytale removed from its usual traditions and implanted into the world of bullfighting and seeing it work so well. All the familiar beats of the story still exist, the evil stepmother, the poisoned apple, the dwarves themselves, etc, but Berger has made the story all his own. The one thing that does not exist in this version of “Snow White” is the magic mirror (which ironically both previous 2012 adaptations messed up royally), although there is never any doubt just how vain a person Encarna is; always wanting and having the best no matter the cost, and then posing with said items for magazine spreads. Also unlike other adaptations, the father is not disposed of as quickly, in fact he is around (although incapacitated) well into Carmen’s teens. This gives the film some of its greatest moments as we witness the father giving his wealth of knowledge on bullfighting while at the same time learning to love again. I just adored these father / daughter scenes, they were beautiful and it made the father’s passing all that more heartbreaking.
Similar to the way he wasn’t hamstrung by the source material, Berger does not find himself a slave to the style he has shot the film in. Although this film is a modern silent film, he again makes it his own; it is not just a pastiche of past films. The look and feel of “Blancanieves” is much more in line with the European silent films of the era however it never feels like the project is an homage to them. Berger has chosen to present the film as silent because he obviously feels this is the best way to tell its story and from the finished result I would not argue against this. When I recently wrote about “The Artist” I mentioned towards the end that hopefully its success would bring to life a new era of silent films but that I also hoped that if this did happen, the stories being told in the format could be free of the art form as a back drop. What I mean by this was I hoped that dramatic stories could once again be told silently without them being about silent films themselves. In all honesty, when I wrote this I knew I would be seeing “Blancanieves” rather soon but it is the perfect example of what I was talking about. The film does not draw attention to itself in regards to being silent, it is what it is, and it is all about servicing the magnificent story.
Everything about “Blancanieves” is just perfection. First of all the performances are stunning. Every single role has been cast splendidly, no one feels miscast at all, but there are a couple that need to be mentioned. The person who steals the movie is Maribel Verdu who plays the wicked stepmother Encarna. She is delicious in the role, owning every scene she is in. As vain as a person could be, every emotion she presents is a false one and she is as cunning as a fox. She may not look like much but cross her path and your life will be short-lived. In front of the cameras, Encarna is the picture of happiness and the perfect wife but away from the spotlight she is someone else entirely; abusive, offensive and downright cruel. Verdu appears to be having the time of her life playing someone so evil and she looks stunning towards the end when she is wearing her black veil. The two girls that play Carmen also need to be singled out because they are also splendid. Sofia Oria who plays Carmen as a child has that rare quality in a child actor in that she is able to come across really sweet and innocent, but does so in a way that feels so honest and is never annoying. She is beautiful and as I have mentioned already, the scenes when she trains with her father are so heartwarming. Oria plays the young Carmen with a sadness in her eyes also, which is apt considering how much her character goes through at an early age. When Macarena Garcia takes over the role (which happens during a beautiful transition while Carmen is hanging the washing up) in her teenage years, the beauty does not fade but it appears the sadness has. That does not last long because tragedy strikes almost immediately, but Garcia plays Carmen with the most beautiful of light touches that makes the audience fall for her immediately and easily. I cannot forget to briefly mention Angela Molina who plays Carmen’s grandmother who is also just sensational. Her screen time is limited but her performance is so good that you will never forget her.
Behind the camera, everything is as perfect as what is in front, with Kiko de la Rica’s black and white photography being some of the most beautiful in years. De la Rica is Alex de la Iglesia’s regular cinematographer who is a director known for his excess and explosions of colour, so it was a nice change of pace to see him work in a more restrained and deliberate way, not to mention with black and white itself. The work of editor Fernando Franco is equally impressive especially in some sequences that exhibit the use of a rapid fire montage technique similar to that of Sergei Eisenstein and he also excels during the bull fighting scenes. Finally the score by Alfonso de Vilallonga is again, perfect. This is just one of those things where the marriage of image and sound come together like they were always meant to be and were not created independently of one another. As good as “Blancanieves” is, the score just elevates it to another level entirely especially when it introduces flamenco to scenes at exactly the right moment to add another whole dimension of tension.
During the opening titles of “Blancanieves” there is a subtitle stating that the film is “inspired by the story from The Brothers’ Grimm” which immediately lets you know that this is no Disney fairytale. The majority of fairytales are actually quite dark and full of very violent things if you go and look back to the original tales. In “Blancanieves” this is also evident as the character of Carmen goes through some very bad things during the tale and for fans not familiar with the tone of the Brothers’ Grimm tales, the ending may come as a surprise or a shock.
Overall I just adored Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves” (as if you couldn’t guess). I actually went into the film with quite high expectations and the film managed to surpass them. I would go so far as to call the film perfect with the exception of one shot that I found a little clunky (the shot of Antonio looking proudly down on her daughter from Heaven near the end of the film). From the opening frame right through until the “Freaks” like finale, I was mesmerized by “Blancanieves” and it’s beautifully told story. While I understand a lot of people have a resistance to watching silent films, please do yourself a favour and see “Blancanieves” if you get the chance, because I am sure if you do, you will not be sorry. For me, it brought the magic of cinema back to me and for that I am going to give “Blancanieves” a rare…..