Don’t blame Pablo Berger for trying to capitalize on trends with the fantastical Blancanieves. Yes, it’s a Snow White (with a hint of Cinderella) story. It’s presented in black and white. And, most suspiciously, it’s silent. Hmm, sounds like a certain Best Picture Oscar winner from a couple of years back. As well as 2012’s pair of Snow White adaptations.
But Berger reportedly had been developing the project for eight years before he started filming, far preceding The Artist, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Mirror Mirror. And with him setting the modified Grimm tale in 1920s Seville—with bullfighting its central theme—it’s difficult to even recognize this shrouded Snow White. Some basic elements survived the tweaks, including the poison apple, glass coffin, evil stepmother, and dwarves. The plot, however, is not about who’s the fairest of them all, but about a little girl reuniting with her daddy and unwittingly following in his footsteps.
Blancanieves, Spain’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film consideration at this year’s Oscars (it didn’t make the cut), begins with a scene of the aforementioned father, Antonio (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), then still a dad-to-be, performing as a matador while his pregnant, flamenco-singer wife, Carmen (Inma Cuesta), watches from the stands. Happiness soon turns to horror, though, as Antonio is gored and paralyzed. His nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdu), has her eye on him, and slithers her way into becoming his wife when Carmen dies during childbirth.
Initially the child, named Carmencita (Sofia Oria), lives with her grandmother (Angela Molina). But tragedy at the girl’s first communion celebration forces Encarna to take her in, where she makes her do the most difficult chores, cuts her hair short, and banishes her from the floor her father’s bedroom is on. Carmencita’s only friend is her rooster, Pepe. Guess where Pepe eventually ends up.
Encarna grows more devious and cruel the longer Carmencita stays, especially when she discovers that the girl sneaked upstairs and found Antonio, who tears up when he sees her. (It’s suggested, though not explicit, that he gave her up as an infant because he was angry that she’s the reason Carmen died.) When Carmencita grows up (now played by Macarena Garcia), she manages to run away, gets knocked out, and is discovered by a member of the Bullfighting Dwarves, who take in the now-amnesiac, dub her Snow White, and reintroduce her to the sport.
Blancanieves was filmed in color and desaturated to black and white during postproduction, and the images look crisp. The actors mug appropriately for a silent film (particularly Verdu, an excellent vixen), and though there could be a few more title cards to better explain some developments, taken as a whole the story is clear. Berger’s eye is an artistic one and his camera is quite mobile, nearly blurring a chase through the woods, for instance, and making a beautiful transition from the child to the adult Carmencita with her swirling laundry around her before hanging it on an outdoor line. The only piece that doesn’t always gel is the score; though it’s for the most part aptly jovial, tense, playful, or foreboding, the film often conveys a darkness while the music remains whimsical.
That darkness continues until the credits roll, with an ambiguous final scene that doesn’t exactly imply a happy ending. Even if you’ve successfully traced the spine of the Grimm tale throughout the film, you’ve never seen it close this way.