In his seminal book on bullfighting Death In The Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway saw the act not as some sort of senseless barbaric sport but as a true art form akin to ballet or painting, but one that is fleeting and described it as, “an impermanent art as singing and dance are, one of those that Leonardo advised men to avoid, and when the performer is gone the art exists only in the memory of those who have seen it and dies with them.”
The ability for life to be both washed away and renewed through death is a harrowing process examined in Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves.
A retelling of the classic tale “Snow White,” the film takes place in 1920’s Spain and follows Carmen (played by Macarena Garcia). The daughter of a famous bullfighter but who lost her mother during childbirth, Carmen is sent to live with her tyrannical stepmother Encarna (played by Maribel Verdu). After years of torment, Carmen escapes and joins a traveling troupe of bullfighting dwarves, where her status and ability as a bullfighter grows.
But upon agreeing to a match at the arena in Seville, Carmen finds the dangers of her past have resurfaced, determined this time to end her optimism and happiness for good.
Using the structure and visual design of silent era cinema, Berger provides an environment where image takes precedence over language and even says, “The viewer must feel rather than think, and be led by a story told only through images and music. Film as ceremony and cathartic experience.”
To achieve this, Berger reteamed with renown Spanish cinematographer Kiko de la Rica (their previous collaboration Torremolinos 73 was nominated for 4 Goya awards.)
Much like his sensual and dazzling compositions in Sex and Lucia, de la Rica allows sunlight and shadow to be prominent and influential characters in the film, battling over barren desert landscapes, the dungeon like confines of a decrepit chicken coup and the snarls and smiles of wrinkled flesh, blending the indifference of nature with the passions of desperate people into a whirlwind held together by the essence of living.
Because of the silent format, Alfonso de Vilallonga’s score becomes the dialog. It is the language of soaring strings and vibrant guitar, mixed with the laughter and shouts of clapping; nervousness, desire and attraction held tightly in the conversation of sun-parched, restless hands.
Berg certainly maintains the darker aspects of the Grimm Brothers’ original tale, but also infuses a refreshingly playful and whimsical component. Despite the constant hardship Carmen has had to endure, her imagination leads her out of the most forsaken situations, and propels her into the infinite romance and curiosity with the world around her.
She dwells in an almost perpetual childhood. This is by no means an indication of immaturity, but rather a vivid illustration of the sense of wonderment she possesses, and how her contagious ability to embrace the unexpected is a source of unending inspiration for the people who come into her life.
As Hemingway reflected further on bullfighting, he would go on to say, “It is an art that deals with death and death wipes it out. But it is never truly lost, you say, because in all arts all improvements and discoveries that are logical are carried on by someone else; so nothing is lost.”
In Blancanieves, death is a binding and renewable force, allowing some things to wither and crumble, carried in the breeze and pant legs of passersby, that ultimately rise to a new form; a form with excitement, imagination and a life-giving breath.
Blancanieves is now playing in New York and select theaters across the country including the Sundance Sunset in West Hollywood and Laemmle’s Royal in West Los Angeles.