It may not be fair to say The Artist is solely responsible for the existence of Blancanieves, a Spanish silent retelling of the Snow White tale, but certainly without Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar-winner this film would never have been released in these parts.
Silent films never actually went away after the ’20s, but for the most part they remained in the realm of the arthouse and the experimental. Like The Artist, Blancanieves is an excellent production that presents a simple story in a manner that modern audiences are no longer accustomed to, but can quickly adapt to.
Set in Seville in the 1920s, Blancanieves retells Snow White with the king a champion bullfighter paralysed in the arena and the evil stepmother his nurse, an ambitious flapper living off her new husband’s fortune.
After her caring grandmother dies, Carmen is sent to live with her father and his wife, where she is locked away in a shed and is put to work as a servant. But she soon learns the truth about her father, the bullfighter, and mother, a beloved flamenco dancer. If this film were any more of a Spanish cliché their daughter would be unemployed right now.
Things take a sudden if expected turn after an assassination attempt on Carmen goes awry and she survives, waking up in the company of a band of travelling bullfighting dwarves. Conveniently amnesiac, this beautiful ‘Snowhite’ shows a remarkably adept skill at battling the calves the dwarfs fight with. They take her in as their star attraction, and soon she is the most talked about, and indeed fairest, person in all the land. A vengeful stepmother is quick to take notice.
The update of the story works rather well, with fashion magazines of the 1920s standing in for a magic mirror and the stepmother’s medical background representing the sorcery of the fairytale. Snow White’s friendship with the animals is here replaced by a cute relationship between the young Carmen and a comic relief rooster. In 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman the film tried to be modern and edgy by having there be eight dwarfs instead of seven – here there are six, but the missing seventh gets referenced in a nice little gag. The climactic confrontation is as macabre as the Disney version’s, while the ending has a unique twist on the fairytale’s famous ending.
So why a silent film? Well, why not? We all know the story, and the dialogue, perhaps through lazy translation, perhaps through over-familiarity, is easily the film’s weakest point. If anything, there may be too many intertitles explaining what’s going on. Old-timey techniques like circular frames and closing oculus cuts are used sparingly and to good effect. The black and white is crisp if a little too heavy in contrast, and while many of the scenes look like they might have been shot in old Hollywood, the handheld camerawork that intrudes on certain scenes kills the illusion of this being a 1920s film in a way The Artist never suffered from. Film nerds will likely be peeved that while the film is framed in the suitable Academy ratio, the intertitles break out into 16:9, as if desperate to use the whole screen.
The music is infused with a Spanish flavour that energises the film for the most part, with plenty of twanging guitars and flamenco claps. The performances are mostly fine, with a little too much camping in certain cases. Macarena García makes a decent stand-in for Bérénice Bejo as Carmen, but the real charm comes from the young Carmen, played by the very sweet and capable Sofia Oria. The dwarfs all excuse themselves well, although writer/director Pablo Berger’s decision to have their leader, the Doc of the group, play a secondary antagonist to ramp up the drama does not succeed.
A huge dip in energy in the second half of the film (Carmen doesn’t become Snow White until more than halfway through the film) means Blancanieves overstays its welcome, but the ending almost makes up for it. It’s a terribly pretty film with some fun ideas that stands as further proof that silent cinema is far from dead, even if it has been in a magical slumber for a very long time.
Blancanieves is released on 19th July 2013