(2012) Written and directed by Pablo Berger; Starring: Maribel Verdú, Sofía Oria, Emilio Gavira, Daniel Giménez Cacho and Macarena García;
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Rating: **** ½
“They’ve rescued a part of the silent cinema that used to inspire passion in us…”
– Maribel Verdú (excerpt from interview, The Making-of Blancanieves)
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but 2012’s Blancanieves completely slipped beneath my radar. It was only a month ago that I read about the film on another blog, and my interest was instantly piqued. Although I eagerly anticipated adding it to my Silent September roster, I approached the film with a healthy dose of skepticism. The phrase “modern silent film” immediately raised red flags, since most attempts come across as a cynical, hollow exercise, rather than a satisfying cinematic experience. It’s a tough line to tread, indeed, trying to re-create a so-called “dead” art form without lapsing into pretentious territory, aping the style with none of the substance. But Blancanieves (Spanish for Snow White) manages to be none of those things. Told with sophistication, wit and heart it engages rather than repels, as one of the best retellings of a popular fable
All of the familiar story elements from Snow White are here, but the devil’s in the details, as writer/director Pablo Berger re-purposes the components for a different time and place. Instead of a far-off fantasy land, the setting is early 20th-century Spain, and instead of a mystical kingdom, the bullfighting dynasty established by Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) stands in as the modern-day surrogate. As in all fables, however, adversity enters Villalta’s world, and the fairy tale existence takes a dark turn. In a moment of distraction he’s gored by a bull, and his pregnant wife goes into labor. As his formidable wounds are being attended to, his wife (Inma Cuesta) dies giving birth to their daughter. Encarna (Maribel Verdú) is a nurse who assists with his recuperation, but she has an ulterior motive. He re-marries, but Encarna is only in love with the promise of his vast wealth, and the course of his infant daughter’s life is changed forever.
Many recent attempts at silent films often stumble by mimicking the overly melodramatic, histrionic acting styles of the past. Performances in Blancanieves, however, are refreshingly modern. Berger likely sensed that modern audiences would not respond as well to such performances, and wisely chose to take a more naturalistic approach with his actors. Verdú, who was attached to the film early in its development, is pitch-perfect as the wicked stepmother. Her cruelty toward the wheelchair-bound Villalta and his daughter Carmencita (Sofía Oria) knows no bounds. Encarna lives in luxury while Villalta spends his days alone in an isolated wing of his mansion, and she forces Carmencita to toil away like an indentured servant. Verdú weaves a character spun of vanity, selfishness and acrimony, a portrait of pure, unrepentant evil. Oria is also wonderful in her role as Carmencita, whose innocence is tarnished by hardship. In one heartbreaking scene, Villalta watches his daughter dance before him, and they share a tender moment together, only to see it torn apart by the vindictive Encarna.
Macarena García plays Carmencita as a young woman, now known as Carmen. After she survives a failed plot to murder her, she joins a traveling sideshow of bullfighting dwarves (yes, you read that correctly). While Berger’s version is much darker than Disney’s take, Blancanieves arguably contains the more positive female role model with its protagonist. Carmen is brave, rather than passive. Instead of waiting for her prince to arrive, carves out her own niche in the world, and becomes a celebrity in her own right, as a matador. By the time she enters the ring (in a scene that mirrors the film’s opening) the story has come full circle. Carmen proves her mettle against her stepmother and has become a worthy successor to her father’s legacy.
In an interview, Berger commented that filmmakers took a step back aesthetically, with the transition from silents to talkies. He alluded to film as a predominantly visual medium, with sound acting as a crutch to fill in the blanks that our imaginations should generate. In creating his movie, Berger did more than simply copy the old aesthetics, but shrewdly created a balance between old and new techniques. He retained the proper 1:33:1 aspect ratio, but did away with the digitally added pops and scratches that are typically intended to simulate a lost silent work. Kiko de la Rica’s gorgeous cinematography does more to convey a sense of another time and place, than any digital doctoring could hope to achieve. Each frame is a work of art. When modern flourishes are added, they enhance, rather than detract from the visual experience. Digital effects, such as a Zeppelin floating above the bullfighting arena or thousands of cheering crowd members, are used sparingly, to merge seamlessly with more traditional visual elements.
Blancanieves is the biggest surprise of Silent September. Instead of being an insufferable “art house” film that’s only fit to be appreciated by stuffy film historians and self-professed cineastes, it’s a delight from start to finish. Keeping this film a secret would be a crime. Berger has accomplished a most remarkable feat with his labor of love. He created a modern silent film that compares favorably to the best of that bygone era by embracing its silent origins, but by the same token refusing to get mired in slavish replication. Will Blancanieves herald a new renaissance for silent films? Unlikely, but it’s a reminder of the subtle power of silent cinema, and it inspires this filmgoer to seek out more treasures from the past.