Blancanieves (Director: Pablo Berger): Eight years in devel­op­ment, Pablo Berger’s sump­tu­ous black and white silent retell­ing of the Snow White story was almost derailed when he heard about the release of Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. Just a week away from shoot­ing, Berger was alarmed that someone else had beaten him to the punch. Luckily, The Artist went on to much com­mer­cial and crit­ical suc­cess, even win­ning the Oscar® for Best Picture at the most recent Academy Awards. The dir­ector is hop­ing that the suc­cess of The Artist means that, as he puts it, “there is a space for a black and white, silent film” in the mar­ket and in the hearts of mod­ern audi­ences.

He’s not the only one hop­ing. Blancanieves is a visu­ally rav­ish­ing melo­drama that aims to move and not just to amuse its audi­ence. Our story begins in 1910. Famous mata­dor Antonio Villalta is gored badly in the ring, send­ing his preg­nant wife Carmen into pre­ma­ture labour with their first child. Though Antonio sur­vives his injur­ies, he’s left para­lyzed from the neck down. Worse, Carmen deliv­ers a healthy daugh­ter but dies in child­birth. Grief-stricken, Antonio rejects his daugh­ter, leav­ing her to be raised by her grand­mother. Seeing an oppor­tun­ity to enrich her­self, one of Antonio’s nurses sets her sights on his for­tune, and has soon become his wife.

Years later, hav­ing never met her father, young Carmencita is orphaned a second time when her grand­mother passes away. Stepmother Encarna reluct­antly agrees to take her in, but ban­ishes her to a rat-filled cel­lar and for­bids her from the second floor of the house where, she sus­pects, her wheel­chair-bound father is kept.

Young Carmencita soon dis­cov­ers that her father is being hor­ribly neg­lected by his new wife, who prefers to carry on with her chauf­feur. She begins vis­it­ing him and learn­ing the tricks of the bull­fight­ing trade, but before long, the pair are dis­covered and Carmencita is ban­ished again, with threats to her father’s life should she dis­obey.

Now grown into adoles­cence, Carmen is shocked one day to be noti­fied her father has been found dead at the bot­tom of the stairs. Consolidating her gains, step­mother Encarna arranges for the chauf­feur to get rid of Carmen the very next day. After strangling and leav­ing her for dead in a dis­tant river, he returns to Encarna to begin their new life together as own­ers of all of Antonio’s wealth.

But Carmen is revived and nursed back to health by a trav­el­ing troupe of bull­fight­ing dwarves(!). Although she seems to have lost her memory and for­got­ten even her name, she is soon a part of the gang after she dis­plays some of her skills in the bull­ring. Word of her fame spreads and soon the group is tour­ing as “Blancanieves y los siete enanos” (des­pite the fact that there are only six dwarves). As her fame grows, Blancanieves comes to the atten­tion of her step­mother, and their paths are destined to cross again.

Making the inev­it­able com­par­is­ons to The Artist, I’d say that Berger’s film is more dar­ing visu­ally as well as more sen­sual. There is a rich pageantry and the­at­ric­al­ity inher­ent in bull­fight­ing, as well as the fla­menco dan­cing that was the love of Carmencita’s mother’s life. The vari­ety of musical styles along with the use of dif­fer­ent rhythms of film edit­ing make Blancanieves a more form­ally dar­ing film than The Artist. Berger’s influ­ences are the mas­ters of silent film­mak­ing from its lat­ter, more developed stage: Gance, Murnau. In the post-screen­ing Q&A, he said that he felt that film­mak­ing took a huge step back­ward with the intro­duc­tion of sound. The heavy sound cam­eras couldn’t be moved and so shots became much more static.

Although the film is most def­in­itely an homage to the silent era, Berger admits to using hun­dreds of visual effects, many to do with the bull­fight­ing scenes. He cer­tainly brings some of the spec­tacle to life, and while no bulls are actu­ally killed onscreen, there are lots of other cas­u­al­ties in the course of the story. By the time the film reaches its incon­clus­ive but not par­tic­u­lary happy end­ing, the over­all sense of mel­an­choly will per­sist. Despite the melo­drama of the story, I was glad he didn’t opt for the stand­ard fairytale end­ing, though I sus­pect oth­ers will dif­fer. Fans of The Artist, for starters.

P.S. In an inter­est­ing coin­cid­ence, the act­ress play­ing evil step­mother Encarna (Maribel Verdú) bears a strik­ing resemb­lance to Bérénice Bejo, who played Peppy in The Artist. 🙂

Here is the Q&A with dir­ector Pablo Berger from after the screen­ing. Very charm­ing indeed.

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Duration: 19:52

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