It has been said the greatest tragedy of silent film is that its era was too brief. It seems Hollywood belatedly agreed with this assessment when they named The Artist (2011, dir. Michael Hazanavicius) only the second silent film to win a Best Picture Oscar (the first was 1927’s Wings, directed by William A. Wellman). The Artist had a somewhat conventionally plotted narrative, clearly patterned after Star is Born (1937, also directed by Wellman), which was perhaps apt, as it borrows silence to portray a silent film. However, its charm and an infectious love of the era won it numerous accolades. Following close on The Artist‘s heels came Blancanieves (2012 dir. Pablo Berger), which did not get nearly the recognition The Artist did, but is the better film. Blancanieves almost feels as indebted to Guy Maddin as it does to the silent era, which may have kept it from attaining the populist status afforded The Artist.
Fifty-year-old NYU film grad Pablo Berger chose a familiar story: the Brothers Grimm’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” This adaptation came on the heels of Hollywood’s pedestrian Snow White And The Huntsman (which predictably made a gazillion dollars) but represents a much darker, idiosyncratic telling of the tale. Berger grasps an important aesthetic of silent film: its sense of otherworldliness. Berger clearly relishes a hallucinatory texture akin to silent artists such as Tod Browning or Erich Von Stroheim. He transplants the story, brimming with humor and tragically latent left-field sexuality, into and around the arena of Spanish bullfights.
The famous toreador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) dispenses of a quintet of bulls, only to be gored by the sixth (the bulls were actually killed, which sparked boycotts by animal rights advocates). Villalta’s pregnant wife Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta) witnesses his maiming, which renders him a quadriplegic. This sends Carmen into premature labor, which proves fatal after delivering her namesake. Villalta’s anesthesiologist, Encarna (Maribel Verdú) sees opportunity and maneuvers to marry the tragedy-stricken celebrity, which puts his infant daughter under the care of her grandmother.
As young Carmen grows, she is never allowed to visit her father. After her grandmother’s death, Carmen is transferred to her father’s estate and sadistic stepmother Encarna. Chopping off Carmen’s hair, butchering her pet rooster, and separating a daughter from her imprisoned, suffering invalid father are the tenets of this quintessentially evil fairy tale mommie dearest.
Reconciliation between father and daughter is managed, albeit briefly, but long enough to tap Carmen’s genetic talents. After her father’s death, Carmen barely escapes being a victim of filicide, and hauntingly evokes Mary Pickford as she merges into the grown daughter (played by Macarena Garcia) of both natural parents. Ecarna’s henchman one-ups her Disney counterpart by trying to rape Carmen before plunging the knife, which gets him gored by the feisty daughter of Villalta. Left for dead, Carmen is adopted by seven dwarf matadors.
A career in the ring follows, and, naturally, Carmen and the Los Enanitos Toreros develop a special bond. Blancanieves is equal parts pure joy and delirious darkness (with one of its most perverse scenes being staffers having their photographs taken with a celebrity corpse—shades of a finale to come). Such idiosyncrasy probably does not afford a happily-ever-after option. After learning that her believed-to-be-dead stepdaughter is the new matador taking Spain by storm, Encarna murders her henchman for having failed in his job, and proceeds to the arena with poisoned apple in hand. Blancanieves concludes on a perverse shocker, worthy of Luis Buñuel.
Like many silent film artists, Berger approaches the seedier elements with good aesthetic taste; the difference being that past artists were required to take such an approach due to period censorship, while Berger chooses to be indirect—and, consequently, gives the film a surprisingly modern vibe.