On paper, the Spanish film Blancanieves seems to piggyback on two recent trends – homage to silent cinema (if this plus The Artist can be considered a trend), and films about Snow White, following two Hollywood takes on the tale. Lest that suggest, however, that Blancanieves is a derivative tail-follower, nothing could be farther from the truth. This is a grand film, with director Pablo Berger showing both a solid knowledge of and a deep love for European cinema of the 1920s.
Pulling not only from the tale of Snow White, but also from sister fairy tale Cinderella (and even a little from Beauty and the Beast), the film follows young Carmen through her horrid childhood after her matador father is paralyzed in a bullfighting accident and her sinister stepmother (played by Maribel Verdu, of Pan’s Labyrinth) takes over, forcing Carmen to work like a slave and psychologically torturing her at every turn. As the film switches from Cinderella to Snow White for inspiration, the jealous stepmother wants a now-grown Carmen dead, but the young woman escapes, albeit with an amnesia-causing head injury, and falls in with a group of traveling circus dwarves. This eventually leads to Carmen becoming a matador herself.
The elements of the fairy tales are all here, but transformed by the use of silent cinema style and the quintessentially Spanish milieu of bullfighting. Unlike The Artist (sorry, the comparison is unavoidable, even though the two films have different goals for their homages), which takes both its story and style directly from late ’20s American cinema, Blancanieves takes its cues from European cinema, combining the high-contrast lighting of German Expressionism with the occasionally flashy editing of avant-garde silent film.
The film has a fine sense of silent melodrama, the actors hitting the style exactly right while never seeming to be imitating older modes. In short, the film is absolutely believable as a film from that era, with no winking and no anachronisms. Its earnestness works with the more over-the-top elements of the story, and with the extreme passion and theatricality of bullfighting. Verdu, especially, brings a delicious menace to the stepmother, never more palpable than the scene where the stepmother invites the child Carmen to a very special, and very cruel, dinner party.
Blancanieves plays with the story of Snow White in unusual ways as well, not only in terms of the addition of the bullfighting element, but in the way the film becomes almost a dark parody of the story in the final scenes. Hardly the upbeat, cuddly ending an American film would have, but somehow it matches the mood here, as Berger is discontent to let everything work out perfectly – as indeed, the original European versions of fairy tales often don’t.
After I saw this film, my first pithy summation was “This is the silent film homage The Artist wishes it were.” Now I don’t think that’s quite right. The Artist was exactly the film its creators wanted it to be – frothy and fun, using an old filmmaking style but not particularly tied to it. Instead, Blancanieves is the silent film homage that many of us silent film fans wished The Artist had been – original, risky, passionate, and yet utterly believable within its chosen stye.