Last June, Rupert Sanders paid homage to the Brothers Grimm with stock fantasy, Snow White and the Huntsman. Three months later, writer-director Pablo Berger released Blancanieves, also a fantasy live-action based on the same German fairy tale.
But three crucial elements separate Berger’s version: a tribute to the 1920s, this Spanish production is told in the style of a black-and-white silent film. As a whimsical, intelligent tale of horror; it is also the right blend of romantic and surrealist mystery. Lastly; inspired by documentary photos of bullfighting dwarves seen in “Hidden Spain“, this screenplay [unlike most adaptations] unfolds against the principal scenery of Spanish bullfights.
As a result of all three elements, Berger’s improvised re-telling is an unpredictable and spell-binding concoction.
1920s in the bustling city of Andalusia — Antonio, a celebrated matador at the peak of his career suffers serious injuries during a match. His heavily pregnant wife goes into distress after witnessing the harrowing event, and dies after giving birth. Physically and emotionally crippled, Antonio rejects their newborn girl Carmenito (snow white) and leaves her under the care of family friend Doña. Father and child move on to separate lives with Antonio suffering in reclusive exile after marrying Encarna (Maribel Verdú) — matriarchal villain of the vain, viscous type. Carmen on the other hand, nurtured and loved by Doña blossoms into a talented and spirited child. But tragedy strikes and Doña dies. Young Carmen, along with pet rooster Pepe, is sent to live in a mansion with Antonio and Encarna.
Sadly, Antonio is wheelchair bound and having fallen into deep depression is clueless about Carmen’s plight. Pending reunion is thus shrouded in melancholia and with Encarna’s presence, a hint of wicked danger. In keeping with the Grimm’s parable of love, envy and wrath — this film also amplifies the terrifying risks of falling for deception.
Bullfighting is a passionate, violent sport and both flavors work to engineer narrative shift from that of a heartwarming tale for kids, to one of chilling cautionary etched in surrealist tragedy. Years later, even after Carmen (Sofía Oria) escapes into a life of bullfighting with the carefree, circus troupe of dwarves; pervasive dread of her looming death continues to linger.
Most crucially, Berger is also capable of infusing lighter moments while sustaining the heavier, eerier older version of Little Snow White. For example, in the Grimm’s original, Encarna is a cannibal and this is replaced by a scene at the dinner table with young Carmen. Here — Maribel Verdúm (instantly recognizable from Y Tu Mamá También & Pan’s Labyrinth) turns in her role as a devilish stepmother with ferocious, sphinxlike power; all the while exuding wisps of opéra comique required of the twist.
Pretty glad I decided against giving this one a miss.
Everything about Blancanieves, from its vivid imagery to metaphorical theatrics, superb performances to haunting musical chords, is dramatically captured and thoroughly inventive. The film does an amazing job at transporting modern audiences back in time and deep inside a cryptic, disturbing universe.
And seriously… the poor rooster.
NO DIALOGUE (INTER-TITLES IN SPANISH)