Blancanieves is a truly stunning motion picture, the kind of movie that makes you glad the movies exist. One of the most original and charming films of the year, it is an imaginative interpretation of the Snow White fairy tale that combines the visual power of silent cinema with the dramatic force of an orchestral score to create an entirely unique method of storytelling.
Blancanieves is both a silent movie and a movie musical; both a traditional fairy tale and a brand new re-imagining of classic tropes; it is at once gorgeous and moving, hilarious and bittersweet. Director Pablo Berger has crafted a film that is rapturously unique but treads on themes that are classic and universal.
It tells the story of a young Spanish girl named Carmen (or “Blancanieves” AKA Snow White, played as a child by Sofia Oria), the daughter of a beautiful dancer and a dashing champion bullfighter. After her father is gored by a bull and the girl’s mother dies in childbirth, Blancanieves is forced to live with her evil stepmother (a perfectly odious Maribel Verdu) in a daunting, Gothic mansion, locked away from her invalid father and conscripted into servitude to the house. Sound familiar?
In point of fact, Berger’s picture combines the familiar plot points of many fairy tales, not just Snow White. This picture is deeply rooted in the stories of childhood and the collective fantasies of that age. Carmen yearns to bond with her father, to honor the memory of her mother, and to become the person she was destined to be. Banned from the second floor of the house by her stepmother, Carmen sneaks into her father’s room where she begins to learn in secret how to become a famous bullfighter like he once was.
This section of the film is a joyous ode to the fears and thrills of childhood discovery. Taking cues from other childhood classics like Beauty & The Beast and The Secret Garden, Blancanieves gives you a genuine look at the world through the eyes of a child.
Complementing that sense of wonder is stellar music by Alfonso de Vilallonga, whose feature-length score vacillates from whimsical to foreboding, from classical to orchestral. Peppered with Spanish guitar and hand claps, de Vilallonga’s memorable cues evoke a fiery and celebratory period in Carmen’s life before tragedy befalls her. The sequences in the mansion convey an air of gothic horror, scored by booming timpani and enchanting harp music. Blancanieves is technically a silent picture, but as anyone familiar with silent cinema knows, those classics were far from silent. The music sets the tone of the picture every step of the way, cuing us to Carmen’s emotions and her harrowing journey from childhood to young adulthood.
Carmen’s world is again disrupted when her father dies, followed swiftly by an assassination attempt on her own life by the wicked stepmother. Blancanieves appears dead but is revived by the kiss of a handsome stranger….who just turns out to be one of seven dwarfs. They are a troupe of touring bullfighters who perform across the country as a kind of circus sideshow. Blancanieves, unable to remember her past life, joins them and trains to become a famous bullfighter. Together they tour as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Once she is renowned across Spain, Carmen’s evil stepmother again plots to kill her.
As a modern, black and white, silent, foreign film, many will probably seek to compare Blancanieves to The Artist, a comparison which is not unwarranted and to which Blancanieves fares favorably. It is a much better picture than The Artist, precisely because it is not a genre exercise or an experiment in filmmaking styles, but a genuine effort by the filmmakers to tell a story–that story just happens to be told against the backdrop of 1920s Spain and involve a bullfighting Snow White.
There are no cheesy silent film gags; everything emerges organically from the filmmaking. Pablo Berger’s film immediately immerses you in the visual vocabulary of silent cinema by literally opening the curtain on the screen and introducing you to its dimensions (1:85 for those who appreciate aspect ratio). Apart from its silence, Blancanieves is a gorgeous picture is every other aspect, from the intricate and stylish costume design to the period-specific art direction.
Unlike the recent rash of fairy tale re-imaginings, Blancanieves isn’t a revisionist retelling of a fairy tale, but more an exploration of the roots of these tales. This film doesn’t set about to modernize or commercialize, instead drawing on the powerful origins of storytelling itself to create a wholly modern and original piece of folklore. Blancanieves is an origin story in many ways: a film about how a fairy tale becomes a legend and about the beginnings of cinema itself.
Blancanieves opens in New York and select theatres around the country and locally at the Sundance Sunset in West Hollywood and Laemmle’s Royal in West L.A this weekend.