“Blancanieves combines the characteristic language of documentary, a typical feature of Spanish realist cinema, with other devices from the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum (fades, magical connections, etc.), typical of silent film – which in some cases call to mind Luis Buñuel’s surrealist aesthetic. These paradoxical styles help to create a visual atmosphere which is appropriate to the somewhat sinister tale by the Brothers Grimm which serves as the pretext of the film.”–Jorge Latorre
DIRECTED BY: Pablo Berger
FEATURING: Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Sofía Oria, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Sergio Dorado
PLOT: Antonio Villalta is a famous bullfighter with a pregnant wife who is distracted in the ring and gored by a bull. The accident leaves him wheelchair-bound, his wife dies giving birth to his daughter, and he marries his nurse Encarna, a cruel and manipulative sociopath who only wants him for his fortune. Encarna at first keeps Carmen, Antonio’s daughter, as a servant girl and virtual slave on the estate, but orders her killed when she is found visiting her father against her stepmothers will; Carmen escapes and is rescued by a band of dwarfs who travel Spain performing a novelty bullfighting act.
- The folk tale “Snow White” was first set down in print by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.
- Dwarf matadors (known as “charlotada”), who would warm up the crowd before the main event, were a real phenomenon in Spanish bullfighting.
- Writer/director Pablo Berger cites Freaks (1932) as one of his main inspirations for the script. ‘s
- Blancanieves was in development for eight years before filming began. This means that it was conceived before The Artist, the revivalist silent film that won the Academy Award in 2011.
- The film won 10 Goyas (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar), including Best Film and Best Actress for villainess Maribel Verdú. Spain submitted it to the Academy Awards but it was not one of the five foreign film finalists.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pablo Berger’s film utilizes simple tricks that would have been available to filmmakers in the 1920s, including frequent use of superimposed double images. The most effective of these is the shadowy skull that flashes over the skin of the apple as the wicked stepmother poisons it (using a syringe), while her intended victim basks in the crowd’s adulatory applause in the background, out of focus.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rooster cam; transvestite bullfighting dwarf; crying corpse
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: “I have this idea for a Snow White adaptation set among Spanish bullfighters in the 1920s, but how can I make it weird? I know! I’ll make it an expressionistic silent film, and make one of the dwarfs a transvestite and give the wicked stepmother a penchant for S&M!” Well done, Pablo Berger.
Original U.S. release trailer for Blancanieves
COMMENTS: As the early career of Guy Maddin reminds us, silent movies have their own special brand of magic. Silents are closer to dreams than are talkies, which move moving pictures closer to theater than to the uniquely visual narrative form film originated as. Do we dream in sentences, or in pictures? It is amazing how much of Blancanieves‘s story we absorb without any language at all, just from context and from watching the actors’s expressions. About half the time, the movie’s sparse intertitles don’t even translate speech, but provide wry commentary (“Where is everybody?” over a shot of a deserted street, or even a simple “?” when Carmen wonders where her rooster has wandered off to).
Pablo Berger steps into this pre-verbal past like he was born deaf; in his first time in the silent format, he shows a flair for visual storytelling that is unmatched in the modern age. It helps that the story of Snow White is so familiar to us (although the customs of early 20th century Spain are not so well-known, which is why a scene like the one where a grieving family happily poses for photographs with the corpse of the recently deceased patriarch seems simultaneously grotesque and amusing). Shooting in color that was later desaturated into black and white, cinematographer Kiko de la Rica creates remarkable visions that stun the eye while advancing the story. A shot of a rooster perched between the horns of a bull head mounted on the wall, followed by a menacing overhead shot where the decapitated beast looms above young Carmen as she flees the room after her pet. A keyhole-masked peep at Encarna dressed as a dominatrix, treating her servant as a hobby horse. The phantom rooster head that appears in Carmen’s dinner plate, wrecking her appetite and reminding us that her childhood of abuse remains embedded in her mind. The shadows of knives forming bull’s horns as Encarna is backed into a corner. And of course, the enigmatic, heartbreaking final shot of Carmen in her glass coffin, tended over in death by the loyal Rafita. Although shot in the 4:3 academy ratio in black and white, the broad vistas—the Spanish countryside, packed bullfighting rings, the country estates—nonetheless convey a sense of Cinemascope widescreen grandeur.
The other technical accomplishments match the cinematography to craft a spell that is superlatively cinematic. Fernando Franco’s editing, which is influenced by Soviet montage but as much by Guy Maddin’s hyperbolic transformation of those techniques, should be singled out for praise. When Antonio is gored by the bull, the montage gradually speeds up as we see the accident, crowd reaction shots, and a subliminal death’s head, followed by a stampede of toreadors, and ending with a calm shot of the bull’s strangely-satisfied eye which is matched to Antonio’s as he lies on the operating room table. It’s a masterpiece of montage that captures the full energy and drama of the tragedy in a blur that would make Sergei Eisenstein proud, if not jealous. The simple morphing effect that transforms Anotnio’s beloved dead wife into the scheming nurse says in a few seconds what might take minutes to convey in exposition. Just as impressive is the score by Alfonso de Vilallonga. He utilizes the melodramatic string arrangements that would have accompanied the film had it been made in period, but adds unique touches: flamenco guitar and hand claps at appropriate moments, accordion dances, and, oddly, an unearthly musical saw (which sounds like an anachronistic theremin) as the main cue for the villainess. As a work of art, the score stands on its own—although of course it’s even more moving when it’s married to these classical images.
Perhaps the one facet that is improved over the silent original style is the acting. The performers here do not grossly overgesticulate, as the theatrically-trained thespians of early cinema tended to do, but rather find the appropriate mix of expressionistic exaggeration and modern subtlety. Both of the Carmens are excellent, and are physically matched so that you have no problem believing that Macarena García is the grown version of Sofía Oria (both have full, sensual lips). It probably helped the child actress immensely not to have to memorize and recite dialogue. She can simply be happy, sad, dance, hide under the bed from a bad woman, play with her pet rooster, and be thrilled at seeing her father after a long separation: just be a kid. García similarly slays, exulting in her freedom and success as a female matador while never losing the underlying sadness of her heritage. The dwarfs are good as well, although only three of the six (not seven) make much of an impression: Josefa, who is clearly a man dressed as a woman for reasons that are never explained; Jesusín, the jealous dwarf who throws daggers at the broadside depicting Blancanieves as the new star of their formerly all-dwarf troupe; and Rafita, the handsome dwarf who is clearly taken with the young lady and who has little to do except look bewitched by her (but does it well). The star is clearly Maribel Verdú as the wicked stepmother, a kinky Cruella de Vil who will excite male submissives in the audience when she dresses in skintight jodhpurs and brandishes her riding crop, while making her servant stand in for a greyhound in a portrait. She is simultaneously comic, alluring, and genuinely, thoroughly evil: a plum role for any actress, and Verdú nails it with an elegance and class that seems to come from another era.
Blancanieves exists simultaneously in three ages. We inevitably bring our modern sensibilities to the experience (therefore, the somewhat anachronistic jokes about Encarta’s predilections for S&M, and the hint of lesbian necrophilia in the epilogue). In sets, costuming, and form, the movie is an incredible evocation of its 1920s setting, a world where horse-drawn carriages and massive sedans share the road side by side. And naturally Blancanieves taps into the ancient myth of the Snow White fable, a children’s story that hides dark truths about the prevalence of death, abuse, orphandom, betrayal, ruthless classism, and greed. These were stories once told to boys and girls to help them process and deal with the harsh realities of life, sweetened with wondrous magic and the promise of a happy ending. But Blancanieves transports the tale to cynical post-modernity, to adulthood. Outside of the camera trickery—presumably invisible to the characters inside the story—there is no magic here. Mirrors don’t talk back, but only reflect the bereaved faces that stare into them. And no happy ending is promised. Snow White finds happiness with her dwarf friends, but she must enjoy it while she can; it is fleeting, and jealous forces work to destroy all she’s achieved in her doomed life. There is humor here, but precious little magic, outside of the comforting, consoling illusions the artists are able to project onto the screen at forty-eight frames per second.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“By the time Blancanieves has grown up and met the dwarves (who allow Berger to reference Bunuel and Fellini and, a bit predictably, ‘Freaks’), the film has achieved stratospheric levels of weirdness.”–Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News (contemporaneous)
“It oddly looks like a cross between a Guy Maddin and Tod Browning flick… there’s some Buñuel in its surreal strangeness, its Kiko de la Rica’s photography is festive and its social commentary is right in the fairy tale spirit, which is enough to make it in the very least a curious re-telling of Snow White.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews (contemporaneous)
Blancanieves – Blancanieves‘s official Spanish site is no longer active, but American distributor Cohen Media’s webpage hosts three versions of the trailer
IMDB LINK: Snow White (2012)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
PABLO BERGER, BULLFIGHTING, BLANCANIEVES, AND PEPE THE ROOSTER – Emma Brown picks writer/director Pablo Berger’s brain for “Interview” magazine
Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves and Modern Spain – Jorge Latorre puts Blancanieves in the context of Spanish history and culture for “Senses of Cinema,” Issue 70, March 2014
Blancanieves (2012) – ‘s original review of the movie for this site
DVD INFO: The DVD (buy) is unusually packed for a Cohen Media release (Cohen typically handles rare, older films rather than new releases). Along with the trailer it includes a director’s introduction, a 30-minute “making of” featurette, and a selection of a live performance of the wonderful score. The Blu-ray (buy) contains the same content in a crisper presentation, and adds a digital coupon to download the soundtrack (which may have expired).
Blancanieves is also available to rent or download on video-on-demand (rent or buy).