Film Review: Blancanieves (Thoughts on the Continuing Potency of Silent Films)

by Mary Lenoir Bond on April 15, 2013


Imagine you enter a snow globe just after the spinning blizzard has settled. You discover you’ve been transported to a silent, starkly black and white Spain, sometime in the 1920’s. Welcome to this imaginative retelling of the classic Brothers Grimm folktale, Snow White—or known here as Blancanieves.

Yes, there is a beautiful young girl, a wicked stepmother, and seven distinctly different dwarves as well as the traditional concepts of jealousy, vanity, love, and survival. However, we are in another culture—rich with a history of religious imagery, bullfighting, and energetic but achingly sensual dance and music. The movie opens with the captioned mysterious words, “Where is everyone?” as the camera pans an enchanting and empty Seville, Spain. You can almost smell the pale stone houses baking in the blazing sun. Soon we see a confident bullfighter in a ring, and apparently this is where the whole town is. The clearly popular matador, Antonio Villalta (played by Daniel Gimenez Cacho), is entertaining his loyal fans while a lovely, pregnant woman is cheering him on from the crowded stands. Of course, it is not long before the first of several ominous tragedies unfold. The bold director, Pablo Berger, does an appealing job of creating foretelling imagery with an uncaught hat, and later a pricked hand dripping subsequent blood.

Before long, we are introduced to a little girl sweetly dancing (Sofia Oria) as her grandmother (Angela Molina of Broken Embraces) prepares her for first communion. The girl has captivating brown eyes, adorably gapped teeth, and thick, obsidian hair. There’s a sassy spark about her as she curls her hands in the air like ribbons along to the Flamenco handclapping tunes. We can see she is well loved. There is also a quirky pet chicken named Pepe that provides further proof of her caring nature. However, tragedy strikes again. Charming Carmencita/young Snow White is forced to go live in a vast, chilly mansion with her father (now a wheelchair-bound recluse dealing with severe, permanent injuries) and her materialistic stepmother. The wicked stepmother/Encarna, Antonio’s opportunistic former nurse, played by Maribel Verdu (best known for her memorable work in Pan’s Labyrinth and Y tu mama tambien), is a perfect nasty, narcissistic monster. But in this version the expected mirror is traded in for fame and notoriety via the press/public, as are the tired lines we all know so well. Encarna cruelly enslaves and torments Carmencita, much like Cinderella. But little Snow White is afforded the opportunity to spend more time with her equally tormented father, at least until Encarna discovers their bonding and finds a sinister way to end it. Instead of the traditional “Mirror, mirror on the wall…” citation, we are posed with other considerations throughout the movie such as, “You can never relive the past” and “Miracle or curse?”

Love does win, in general, though here it is twisted and bittersweet, as in real life where struggle and death haunt us all. We see the idea of balance repeated numerous times: death/life, kindness/cruelty and that reinforces what the director and cinematographer capture so brilliantly with their angles and stunning use of lighting. Fairytales sometimes have surreal elements, which make them not plausible in reality. This is not the case here, however, as all of these events could actually take place, perhaps making them all the more frightening. The images and metaphors of dark vs. light are repeated effectively via costumes, shadows, and human nature. Even the deceptive transformation of Encarna is not so Disney-witch hocus-pocus unreal— she does not become a creepy old lady. Instead her ugliness is more definable by her wretched actions and vanity. A simple black, lacey veil is used to later hide her identity from Carmen when the famous poison apple scene transpires. And the anon Freak Show (a nice added touch to the plot) environment seems a perfect supplement to this story.

Older Snow White/Carmen is played by the attractive Macarena Garcia—with large, bright eyes similar to that of actress Zooey Deschanel. Her styling/haircut is reminiscent of the gorgeous 1980’s pop-star Martika. But do not let her innocent beauty fool you, as this character has some big cojones. In this re-imagining, the cute little birdies and nauseatingly saccharine-sweet voice of the Disney Snow White are gone. As mentioned, we learn much more about Snow’s tragic childhood. Instead of becoming a helpless, lost lass in the woods who winds up a housekeeper to seven small coalminers, she follows in her fathers footsteps and finds work as a matador with seven dwarf matadors. She does not do the cooking for the men—instead, a delightful dragged-out dwarf named Josefa takes on those household roles. Snow White is more of a contemporary equal than a pampered princess here. Perhaps taking a cue from other such strong female heroines, like Brave or Mulan or The Hunger Games. It’s refreshing and much welcomed to see powerful women who become so, not by being sexy or acting dumb or manipulative or being helpless or cruel, but by pure strength and perseverance. Cheers to that.

Some people wonder: why a silent film and in black and white, no less, now in this age of advanced technology and CGI? After the surprise success of the 2012 Oscar winner, The Artist, perhaps the timing is to capture such momentum. But, I have another theory. People are so consumed by their cyber world and interactions, that a silent film forces one to shutdown some of this constant chatter and interruption. And the limited color palette recalls a simpler, yet more glamorous time. Women’s make-up appears darker as the sharp shadows indicate, and the hairstyles are more angular, even outfits appear to shine brighter. Tears look more like crystals than water because in a black and white, silent world, you are forced to focus all of your attention on the screen. Therefore, if you are distracted by a vibrating iPhone or random annoying thoughts, you will miss large chunks of the plot by not paying attention, even if only for a moment. There is no audio dialogue to keep you connected, if you look away. The emotions rely on the face, not the voice. This medium is dependent on actions and expressions to convey true love or cruelty. Perhaps this is why silent films are making a comeback—as a means to shut off at least a small part of our ADD world, if only for two hours. The result is stunning. The director has the opportunity to play more with natural light and shadows, due to the lack of color; and the actors must find the perfect grey area between bland and over-dramatic.

Let me get my small pet peeves out of the way. The casting of the young Snow White/Carmencita to the adult Snow White/Carmen was not physically accurate. Perhaps this was some symbolic and artist choice, but the first had dark-brown eyes and the latter had sky-blue. Since this fairytale is one that technically could take place in real life, this impossibility was a bit irksome. But I am nitpicking. Additionally, some of the humor felt too forced or out of place. For instance, the brief S&M scene with the stepmother felt silly, contrived and unappealing. However, most of the humor was charming and added a nice balance to the more menacing parts, which I will not give away—other than to say that Encarna proves to be one nauseating and creepy dinner host.

Fairytales (or folktales, if we are being completely accurate in this instance of Snow White—as technically, fairytales must include an actual fairy, or so I’ve been told) will always be popular. Some can recall Shelley Duvall’s (best known for acting in The Shining, Popeye and Annie Hall) Faerie Tale Theatre television series. Talented movie and theatre stars such as Susan Sarandon, Matthew Broderick, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Reeve, Bernadette Peters, Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen, Helen Mirren, Carrie Fisher, Liza Minnelli, and countless others would play various fairytale lead roles. The Snow White episode starred Elizabeth McGovern, Vanessa Redgrave, and Vincent Price. And just look at films from the past several years, where retellings of Cinderella and Snow White have been prevalent. Just last year we had Mirror Mirror starring Julia Roberts and Snow White and the Huntsman starring the Twilight series darling, Kristen Stewart. Sigourney Weaver even did Snow White: A Tale of Terror back in 1997. British-born talent Miranda Richardson (perhaps best known for her role in The Crying Game) even did a remake in 2001 called Snow White: The Fairest of Them All.

Any fan of Pedro Almodovar movies, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Artist, Amelie, silent films, old back and white films, fairy tales/ folktales, and even Fellini fans should check this out. As well as people who just want to expand their cultural awareness or their concept of what a film is. If possible, it is generally recommended that silent films be seen in the form they were originally intended: at the movie theatre. I worked at The Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles for years, where I deepened my love of the medium by watching the many old-timey stars come back to life on the screen weekly. Having also seen many silent films on DVD, the theatre experience is definitely the better choice. Often, these classics are still accompanied by live music (such as at The Castro Theatre in San Francisco where the yearly SF Silent Film Festival is held), which is a uniquely enjoyable experience. And actually, the SFSFF recently reported they’d be co-presenting Blancanieves in San Francisco at The Embarcadero.

Even if the film comes with a soundtrack instead, as obviously The Artist and Blancanieves do, being in a dark theatre before a huge screen truly enhances the world you enter. Silent films seem to heighten all of the senses: the visual, the imagined taste or scent, the imagery of touch, and even sounds are more alive—as they are left up to the individuals imagination, much like reading a novel or book of poetry. There will always be people who do not want their traditions tampered with, people who will not want to see a new version of anything, so some silent film enthusiasts or fairytale fans may have a hard time acclimating themselves or accepting this, but that seems a shame. Sure, folks who are not used to silent films or black and white imagery may struggle, at first. So, just keep all of your senses open and allow yourself to be swallowed-up by something once new, then old, now new again. And if you have ever been enchanted by magical realism—such as the literary works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda, and even the film Volver, you should be able to appreciate the romantic-creepy dualities.

Something of interest to keep in mind while watching this version of Snow White is to notice all of the dancing and movement involved. According to the translation by May Sellar, the original Jacob and Wilhem Grimm tale ended with these words: “But red-hot iron shoes had been prepared especially for the wicked old Queen, and she was made to get into them and dance till she fell down dead.” That is the end. This is obviously not how the Disney classic concludes, nor is it how this version closes.

This ending, a total liberty taken with reinterpretation (which I obviously won’t give away), I adored. It was not expected. It was subtle, yet metaphorically compelling. It enforced the epitome of sad intermingling with sweet. Happily ever after was more subjective. Prince Charming does not come, not exactly…

Landmark Theatres Engagement begins Friday, April 19, 2013 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema, One Embarcadero Center, Promenade, San Francisco, (415) 352-0832. Film running time: 104 minutes.

Mary Lenoir Bond

Mary Lenoir Bond graduated from University of Southern California with a BA in Creative Writing and Theatre, and holds a MFA from Pacific University in Writing/ Poetry. More importantly, she enjoys hunting for mushrooms and the lost pages of Laura Palmer’s diary in the woods. In her parallel-universe life she is a professional jazz-singer/go-go dancer/award-winning physicist who owns a green tea plantation run exclusively by former child-stars.

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