I came to “Blancanieves” with absolutely no foreknowledge. Part of me wishes you could, too, but I'm willing to spike that in exchange for proselytizing on its behalf. This gorgeous, silent, black and white European production is an unexpected gift from the gods of pure cinema – a bottomless carafe of dessert wine with increasingly dizzying effects. Should you be so lucky as to live near an arthouse theater, please, for the love of all that's holy, justify the higher taxes of the area and see it.
As a Spanish illiterate I didn't realize that “Blancanieves” means Snow White. (I took French but that's no excuse, the title should have triggered “Blanche Neige” - I'm just a knucklehead.) A reference to Los Hermanos Grimm in the opening credits clued me in, however the film's peculiar setting, 1920s Seville by way of Guy Maddin, so shook all expectations out of me that it wasn't until dwarves showed up that I remembered about the source material.
The dwarves appear until the 50-minute mark and by then “Blancanieves” has well established itself as doing its own thing. Moving between swirling montages set to flamenco guitar and high contrast interior shots of well-manicured mansions, director Pablo Berger's film is lush, dynamic and engaging, proving that “The Artist” was no fluke – silent (or dialogue-free) cinema as an art form still has treasure waiting to be mined.
The film begins before our titular heroine's birth, at a bullring. The great Antonio Villata is wearing the suit of lights, but is gored. The shock of seeing him fall sends his pregnant wife into early labor, where she dies during childbirth. The daughter (called Carmen, at first) is rejected by her now paralyzed and heartbroken father. She is raised by a loving caretaker, where all the meals are taken outside and the dancing never ceases, but in time Carmen is shipped off to her father's estate, now run with an iron fist by a wicked stepmother (the jealous nurse who was present at the fatal birth.)
She has no mirror on the wall, but the stepmother frequently finds herself posing for photographers. Her Art Deco dresses mixed with the extravagant Iberian interiors is a marriage of design styles fit for unlimited designer fragrance ads. (Which, in this heady context, is no pejorative.) Despite the strict rule not to visit the top floor, Carmen eventually reconnects with her hermit father.
In time, though, Carmen grows to early womanhood and the father passes (leading to a bizarre montage of people posing with the corpse for photographs.) That's when the stepmother sends her new lover out to the woods to have the girl killed, and the story beats from every other Snow White tale you've seen kick in.
Carmen, near-drowned and suffering from amnesia, is rescued by seven dwarf comics/bullfighters and soon they've renamed her Blancanieves, “like the girl from the story.” Turns out bullfighting is in her genes and the big emotional and physical climax takes place in the same Andalusian plaza del Toros where her father fell.
The story is simple but the filmmaking is not. Using light vignetting on a 4:3 aspect ratio, Berger's fealty to early cinema's formalism is wisely cherry-picked. The editing is (for lack of a better term) modern, in that it is quite rapid, and the camera in frequently in motion. The score mixes it up quite a bit, too, shifting from Flamenco to a rich, propulsive full orchestra.
Still, this is a silent, black & white movie and the irony isn't lost that such old storytelling devices feel so new. “Blancanieves”' plot may not be filled with too many big surprises (though it does have a unique spin on the ending) but the overall existence of this version of Snow White comes accompanied with a blast of crisp, clean air.