Blancanieves (Pablo Berger - Spain/France) 90 minutes
The craze for silent cinema continues. Following the Oscar-winning The Artist and Miguel Gomes’s half-silent Tabu, the latest offering is from Spain, by director Pablo Berger. Blancanieves, an adaptation of Snow White, is closer to the The Artist in appearance but its sensibility is more similar to Gomes’s. It is not simply a fine silent film that is largely free of gimmicks (unlike Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar winner) but a first-rate, at times ingenious, literary adaptation.
The action begins in the bullrings of Seville in the early 20th century, with maestro toreador António Villalta at his peak, only to be horrendously gored by the bull when he is momentarily blinded by a photographer’s flash. His pregnant wife witnesses it and goes into labour from the distress. The two are taken to hospital, where Villalta’s life is saved but the wife dies during childbirth. Villalta then marries his scheming nurse Encarna (a brilliantly icy Maribel Verdú, from Y Tu Mama También and Pan’s Labyrinth) and the young daughter, Carmencita, is packed off to live with her maternal grandmother.
After the grandmother’s death, the child goes to live with Encarna, where she is barred from seeing her father, wheelchair-bound and kept captive in his upstairs bedroom, but finds a way nonetheless. All this time she is subjected to the familiar cruelty and life of drudgery in the house’s lower quarters. After finally escaping the house, she meets up with a travelling circus troupe - seven dwarves, naturally. She is unable to remember her name so they baptise her Blancanieves ("like in the fairy tale", a wryly self-reflexive take on the source material). She finds she has inherited her father’s talent in the corrida and becomes a sensation in Andalusia, knocking Encarna off the front pages of the society magazines, provoking her stepmother’s ire.
What makes Blancanieves particularly fresh is it doesn’t slavishly follow all the available tropes of silent cinema; though it is clearly a homage to European films of the silent era, it lets its story breathe and mines other arts and later cinema too for its references. Kiko de la Rica’s hight-contrast black-and-white photography is a delight and both he and Berger excel at capturing the very photogenic charms of Seville. It is a slice of sun-drenched Latin Gothic that stands as an innovative film in its own right while also giving new life to an old fairytale (while simultaneously drawing elements from one or two others). Blancanieves’s success at the box-office in Spain, where it has been hailed as the best film of 2012 by none other than Pedro Almódovar, suggests that silent cinema may have an audience that will sustain it beyond being a simple fad. With the availability of silent films online now, it may well be that more people are receptive to films without sound than there have been since the advent of the talkies. That may or may not be the case but Blancanieves is likely to be a film that will last (certainly more so than The Artist).