Blancanieves, Spanish director Pablo Berger’s second feature, will turn to American audiences at an unlikely intersection of tastes and trends. On the heels of The Artist and last year’s near-perfect Tabu, Blancanieves is the latest in a string of European-produced throwbacks to silent-era filmmaking. But the other major element at play here is the film’s classical fairy tale structure: it’s a version of Snow White updated to the world of Spanish matadors in the 1910s and 1920s, which makes Blancanieves a necessary relief from brash but vacant Hollywood retreads of the world of Grimm like Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman.
But regardless of its potent timeliness, the greatest asset of Blancanieves is its masterful, elegant, and palpably inspired embrace of silent-era styles and techniques. Blancanieves is inventive while remaining nostalgic and familiar, intricately stylized while still retaining the capacity to move you, and completely devoid of audible dialogue while still filling your ears will a rich, diverse palette of film music. Of the handful of silent-era throwbacks to be released in the last few years, Blancanieves, more than any so far, takes a devoted and orthodox approach to silent-era techniques while remaining fresh and surprising. Far from an arthouse gimmick, Blancanieves marries style and story in a way that seems so obvious and fitting that it’s a wonder why this film hadn’t been made before.
Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giminez Cacho of Bad Education and Cronos) is a famed matador who suddenly meets the end of his career after taking his eyes off the bull. He awakens from a coma, paralyzed, to learn that his wife (Inma Cuesta) passed away while giving birth to his daughter, Carmen. In the depths of loneliness and despondency, Antonio marries his nefarious nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu of Y Tu Mama Tambien and Pan’s Labyrinth). Carmen spends her childhood under the care of her grandmother (Angela Molina of Broken Embraces), but when the elder suddenly dies, Carmen is sent to live in the mansion of her father, who she’s never met, and her evil stepmother, Encarna, and this is where the film’s resemblance to the most resonant moments of he Snow White tale come most prominently into play.
Encarna sends Carmen into a life of young servitude, until she stumbles upon her father’s room while Encarna plays dominatrix with her chauffeur. Carmen and Antonio immediately reconcile their missing daughter-father bond, and he teaches the young Carmen how to bullfight. One day, after Carmen has reached adolescence, Encarna murders Antonio, determined to have all his riches to herself.
After Encarna’s chauffeur/lover fails to kill Carmen, she runs away and happens upon a septet of little people who work as traveling entertainers who stage matador fights with calves (the “seven dwarves”). Carmen joins them in their travels and masters her bullfighting skills in hopes of continuing her father’s legacy, fighting under the name Blancanieves.
Carmen is played by two actresses: Sofia Oria as a child, and Macarena Garcia as an adult. While both are excellent, it’s Garcia’s performance that helps elevate Blancanieves beyond an exercise in style, even though that style is exquisite (there are resonances of, but not outright references to, great European directors from the 1920s including Carl Th. Dreyer, F.W. Murnau, Abel Gance, and Jean Epstein). The film’s climax at Carmen’s first real bullfight is both moving and thrilling in a way that may just very briefly take your breath away. Blancanieves’s exercise in style often makes it difficult to engage beyond admiration of its efforts, but the final act of the film hoists Blancanieves well beyond a rigorous exercise in cinematic form.
In relocating Snow White to 1920s Spain, Blancanieves does not so much balance the old and the new as it invents new combinations of familiar elements. It may be a pastiche, but it’s one that (thankfully) references a once-dead institution of filmmaking rather than a particular library of titles. Thus, Blancanieves is far from stuck in the past. Instead, the film exhibits how older techniques can be used for engaging new visions, helps pave a pathway for cinema’s future against homogenization (something the international arthouse has been at notable risk of), and – most importantly – does its modest part to revive cinema’s present.
The Upside: A worthy resurrection of an old style that offers plenty of originality through its inspired combination of the familiar; a familiar story that hooks you by the end, thanks in part to a great performance by Garcia in the title role; a meticulously and gorgeously stylized film, complete with a fantastic score by Alfonso de Vilallonga.
The Downside: Towards the beginning, watching the film feels like simply witnessing a demonstration of style instead of being invited into become emotionally engaged, but that changes by the end.
On the Side: Blancanieves was Spain’s official Foreign Language entry for competition in this year’s Academy awards. It wasn’t nominated, but it apparently wasn’t disqualified for being a foreign language film with no spoken dialogue, which is a relief considering the Academy’s notoriously arbitrary rules in this category.
Blancanieves will open in limited release Friday from Cohen Media Group. You can find theaters and updates on its expansion here.