Imagine Snow White done by F.W. Murnau, Luis Bunuel, and Federico Fellini, and you’d get something on par with Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves.
A latter day silent film that manages to feel both modern and classic at the same time, Blancanieves won a ton of Goyas (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar) earlier this year, and, when put up against our recent Best Picture winner (Argo), it certainly gives the Spaniards a leg-up in terms of popular cinematic taste right now.
The Grimm’s Fairy Tale Snow White is given a truly unconventional reimaging here, fed through a filter of the opera Carmen, with a melodramatic bent and a plot that revolves around bullfighting. Carmen is the daughter of a famous matador—one who became a paraplegic as a result of his profession, and is a remarried widower. Carmen is played by different actresses throughout the film, as we follow her from youth to adulthood, and they all do a great job of handling the starring role. The lady her father remarried is, in a word, evil. She’s literally a dominatrix, and that fetish is clearly metaphorical of her treatment of those around her in her social life. She keeps Carmen in a sort of dungeon, controlling both her and her father with twisted intent, until Carmen is rescued by a band of dwarves and re-discovers her bullfighting heritage.
The visual storytelling is exceptional, with a precise execution of tone and narrative eye-line throughout. This makes it pointedly unchallenging to watch, as it unfolds in a cinematically sophisticated, very audience friendly way—despite its surrealist and absurdist flavors. Unless the viewer is completely visually illiterate (or impaired), they should have no trouble following this nearly dialogue-free, expressionistic story—one that is as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to (thanks to a superb score by Alfonso de Vilallonga and the studied eye of cinematographer Kiko de la Rica). Silent films sink or swim by the quality and impact of the visuals (obviously), and Berger’s film is a visual Michael Phelps, able to handily keep up with the giants whose shoulders he’s standing on.
Maribel Verdu shines as the evil stepmother, milking her devilish nature and creating a classic portrayal of an already classic fairy tale archetype. The costume design does a major service to the characters and the world, and I found myself taken aback by the buildings throughout the picture—seriously, there’s one architectural stunner after another in Blancanieves. I should also mention how well the animals “perform” in this movie—Berger and his editor perfectly utilized the various bulls and the rooster that basically become characters in their own right as a result of the execution (aided by the way the humans react to them, of course, but it works).
This variation on an overly familiar tale allows for an active participation on the part of the viewer. We watch in anticipation of what we will recognize and how it might be different, and that’s one of the charms of Blancanieves: it offers delightfully oblique alternatives to those expectations. The dwarves are a travelling group of bullfighters, she’s called Snow White based on the existing tale, and her relationship with animals is more “animal rights” than fantastical. The ending is beautifully tragic, and in itself is a variation on an expected story-point.
The Cohen Media Group blu-ray/DVD release is a stellar package, with a beautiful transfer and insightful special features. This is a definitely a worthwhile purchase for the cinematically inclined. It’d fit comfortably alongside La Strada (1954) and Sunrise (1927) on your shelf, or in an unforgettable triple feature.