Who would have thought we would have to wait almost ten years before Spanish director Pablo Berger would present us with his second feature film and what a wonderful piece of work it turned out to be. Written and directed by Berger Torremolinos 73 (2003) was an entertaining adult black comedy set in Spain in 1973 his latest movie is something rather different. Blancanieves (2012) is a silent black and white fantasy drama based on the well-known fairy story by the Brothers Grimm. Snow White is a story that has been adapted for the big screen on many occasions, first I believe in 1916 and more recently in 2012 Snow White and the Huntsman was directed by Rupert Sanders and starred Kristen Stewart in the lead role. The latest version is set in a romanticised 1920’s Andalusia and quite rightly was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film the same year that The Great Beauty (2013) won. It did however go on to win ten Goya Awards including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
Unlike the Hollywood hyped The Artist (2011) Berger’s film is far from being lightweight, frothy or boring, he describes as a ‘love letter to European silent cinema’ and what a wonderfully constructed love letter. As we all know the story I will not apologise if my description is somewhat of a spooler.
As our story begins we witness a crowd approaching an arena that is about to stage a bullfight. Inside the stadium in Seville, Spain a matador dresses in all his grandeur and then prays to his god. The bullring is packed as usual; food and wine are carried in, families are dressed in their refinery for this great social event. Six bulls and one matador: Antonia Villalta stands in the centre of the large arena with only a cape to defend himself. A drum role precedes the entry of each bull. The sixth and final is dedicated to the matadors beautiful pregnant wife sitting just above him in the stands next to her own mother. Standing like a statue with rapier in hand ready to kill the subdued beast a photographer flash go off and distracts the matador for only a second, but long enough for the bull to take his opportunity to strike the brave man throwing him around like a rag doll. The injured matador is taken to the local hospital, the same one that his wife has been admitted to, the shock of seeing her husband gored has brought on the birth of their first born. Mother dies in childbirth but Carmencita is saved. When Antonia regains consciousness he is told that he will never walk again and will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, when shown his newly born daughter he rejects her blaming the death of his beloved Carmen on the complications involved with the birth. Antonia Villalta remarries, this time to the nurse that cared for him during his convalescence - the scheming Encarna. Carmencita lives with her grandmother, estranged from her father but she is desperate to see him and prays that he will attend her first communion, but of course he does not, sending her only a gift to mark the occasion. At the party that follows her spiritual union with God, her grandmother has a heart attack and dies in the young girls arms.
Taken to Monte Olvids to live with her stepmother and forbidden to see her father, who spends his life on the second floor of his vast villa, she is indoctrinated into a strict regime by her stepmother who cuts off all her beautiful hair, her sleeping quarters are in a straw covered basement room. Carmencita soon realises that her father’s second wife is a cruel and heartless person whose only interest is herself. Life is now spent carrying out menial tasks and her only joy is her pet chicken. One day she decides to venture up to the forbidden second floor and discovers that her father is totally confined to his wheel chair and is also cruelly treated by the mistress of the house. The ex bullfighter is pleased to be reunited with his daughter and begins to pass on the secrets of the matador. One evening Carmencita is surprised to receive her first ever invite to join her stepmother for supper only to be served up her pet chicken. The wicked Encarna now plans to get sole control of Antonia’s wealth by dispensing him down the main staircase in his wheelchair, killing him instantly. She has know only to deal with his irritating daughter, sending her to an area of woodland to pick flowers for her fathers grave with the chauffer who has precise instructions to kill her. Drowning her in a lake he return’s to the villa to report to his mistress. Meanwhile back at the lake Carmencita is found and resuscitated by a handsome dwarf who takes her back to his home that he shares with six other small people, but because of the attempted drowning she know suffers a lose of memory. Discovering that this group are a theatrical touring company she joins them on the road and they give her the name Blancanieves – Snow White. The main task of company is to entertain the crowds at the bullring before the main event.
At one of these events one of the dwarfs is injured when ‘fighting’ a bull calf in a miniature mock up of the real thing and Snow White goes into the ring and realises that she has the skills of a true matador due to her fathers lessons that are now coming back to her and she wins the acclaim of the crowd. It’s not long before the word of her bullfighting skills gets around and an unscrupulous agent signs her to a very suspect contract to fight at the same stadium where her fathers accident took place: Seville. Meanwhile stepmother has inherited her father’s villa and all his money and already killed her second husband. Snow White prepares for her first professional fight, dedicating her eventual win to her dead father. In the audience is her wicked stepmother who true to the original story presents Snow White with a poisoned apple, which she bites into, and collapses.
The conclusion to our story, suffice to say, is a little different to the one your probably familiar with from the Christmas pantomime but it will still rattle your emotions.
This is an unbelievably worthwhile example of visual poetry from a director whose ambition was to make a silent movie and one who describes cinema ‘as a journey in time’ and how in this case he wanted to travel back to the 1920’s. The cinematic images make us believe we are in this era, considering that the technicians working on this film had to relearn the craft of making a black and white silent movie, a completely new experience for all these involved. Costumes, makeup and hair superbly reflect the time period. Its square framing, contrast and fantasy sets all add to its appeal. Another important part of a silent film is the music, in this film it was the responsibility of Alfonso de Vilallonga whose score becomes such an integral part of the story telling and has been quoted as saying it was similar to writing an opera. Two actresses played the part of Blancanieves, the nine-year-old version by Sofia Oria a young lady who had never acted before and therefore completely inexperienced which is hard to believe when you view the film. The 18-year-old Macarena Garcia, who has mainly been seen on Spanish TV plays more vibrant Snow White. Daniel Gimenez Cacho (We Are What We Are 2010) plays Snow Whites father, while Angela Molina, seen in The Unknown Woman (2006) and Broken Embraces (2009) plays grandmother. But the very best role goes to the brilliant Spanish actress Maribel Verdu as Encarna who comes across as the epitome of evil and who plays the ‘baddie’ with such panache, English speaking audiences may have seen this actress in Y tu mama tambien (2001) and Guillermo del Toro’s award winning Pans Labyrinth (2006).
A wonderful and brave example of cinema at its best, and one that will hypnotise its audience. This is a movie that demands to be seen even by viewers that are normally incapable of accepting other people’s culture.