Spanish director Pablo Berger’s silent, black-and-white adaptation of the fairy tale Snow White, which swept Spain’s Goya Awards and has attracted an enthusiastic following on the international festival circuit, is gorgeous enough to make you want to kiss the screen.
Distinct from either the Grimm Brothers original or the Disney version, it’s closer to the spirit of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, or something by Berger’s countryman Pedro Almodovar. While the story, shorn of its supernatural elements, is mired in abuse and tragedy, its effect is sensual and superficial.
Much more than Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar-winning The Artist, to which it’s often compared, Blancanieves is in love with style. The framing is striking and the contrasts sharp, the costumes ornate and all of it amplified by an emphatic score which mixes everything from thrumming flamenco guitars to the swooping tones of the theremin.
The setting is the Andalusian city of Seville, against the backdrop of the sacrificial sport of bullfighting. Our king in this version of the tale is a handsome matador, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho, best known for Almodovar’s Bad Education). An adored celebrity, Antonio is married to a beautiful flamenco dancer (Inma Cuesta), who is pregnant with their first child. But Antonio, temporarily blinded by a photographer’s flash, is gored by a bull while his horrified wife looks on. She goes into premature labour and, shortly after their baby daughter is born, dies. Antonio is left paralyzed and inconsolable.
The little girl, Carmencita (Sofia Oria), is raised by her grandmother (Angela Molina), while gold-digging nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu) becomes Antonio’s new wife, spending his money and cavorting with the chauffeur. When her grandmother dies, Carmencita is sent to live with her stepmother. Forced to sleep in a coal cellar and work as a house slave, the girl – against stepmother Encarna’s firm command – manages to sneak upstairs and meet her shut-in father. They bond, and in their brief time together, he even manages to teach her the rudiments of bullfighting.
After Antonio dies, Encarna orders the girl killed, but the now-teenaged Carmen (Macarena Garcia) survives – though she suffers from amnesia. She is taken in by a group of bullfighting dwarfs (Berger says that photographs of these men were his inspiration for the film). Blancanieves (“Snow White” in Spanish), as the dwarfs name her, becomes a famous bullfighter herself, looking remarkably fierce and fetching in her form-fitting get-up and cap.
But her fame, of course, draws her evil stepmother’s attention.
Evil she may be, but Encarna’s return to the film is welcome. Frame by frame, Blancanieves is a beautiful, exotic picture-book of a movie, but it’s only when Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) is onscreen, a tight-lipped, wild-eyed embodiment of desire gone mad, that the movie finds a pulse.