Blancanieves. Opens Friday at the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema.
By Gerald Peary.
Lots of folks felt pretty self-congratulatory about The Artist, proud of sitting through a silent film and actually enjoying it. Was that a one-time only?
Will those same people want to repeat the experience, as it’s no longer a retro novelty? Well, here comes a worthy follow-up opportunity: Blancanieves, another flick sporting title cards in lieu of dialogue, and in black-and-white, and, like The Artist, a period piece set long ago and far away, within the milieu of bullfighting in 1920s Spain. Think Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand (1922). But this one is a clever hybrid. Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger forges on to his Sun Also Rises-era narrative of the bullring, a Grimm’s fairy-tale re-envisioned for today’s adults: the saga of Snow White, victim of child abuse, and her groupie dwarfs. Death in the afternoon? It’s the titular “Blancanieves”—Spanish for “Snow White”—biting into the fatal apple.
Snow White (Sofia Oria) is young Carmen, born of a famous Spanish matador, Antonio (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Tragically, her daddy is gored in the ring and crippled, her mother dies in childbirth, and she is whisked away to live with her grandma (Italy’s great Àngela Molina), who also promptly succumbs. Blancanieves turns noir and gothic as Carmen is forced to reside in a shadowy, Wellesian mansion with her bitter, wheelchair-bound dad, who blames her for his wife’s death; and, of course, there’s a wicked, wicked stepmother, Encarna (Maribel Verdú), her father’s nurse. Encarna is a formidable enemy, alternately hot-tempered and ice cold, like Agnes Moorehead’s child-hating Mrs. Kane.
Dwarfs? They arrive later on, when young Carmen becomes gorgeous grown Carmen (Macarena Garcia) and escapes into the countryside to elude Encarna. Unlike Disney’s marriage-seeking Snow White, Blancanieves is a careerist. She wants to be a toreador like dear old dad. The dwarfs are teensy toreadors too, a bullring novelty act. One of them, a short-bodied prince, adores Carmen. Another one, grouchy and jealous, becomes a tool in the plot of the poison apple. However, when angered and done wrong, all the dwarfs become a single unit of grotesque revenge, like the twisted-bodied circus performers of Freaks.
Nothing above is done tongue-in-cheek. The Grimm story is taken very seriously, and so is utilizing the still-vivid tropes of silent cinema, including heart-pounding melodrama and a sob-producing ending. There are top-flight bullfight scenes and a splendid, flamenco-based soundtrack. Berger, perhaps even more than The Artist’s director, Michel Haznavicus, is a true aficionado of early movies. In interviews, he has articulated his devotion to the works of F. W. Murnau and Abel Gance. Blancanieves is not quite as charming as The Artist, but it’s less of a parlor trick, more sincerely a work of true silent cinema, 85 years after the dawn of sound.