In Spanish, the familiar fairytale princess whose skin is white as snow is called ‘Blancanieves’.
You’ve probably seen Disney’s take (1937) on the story – and I’d highly recommend checking out Lotte Reiniger’s shadow-puppet animation Aschenputtel (1922).
But tackling fantasy in the flesh is different from animation – where a creative mind like Reiniger’s could fashion magic from stop-motion. Where the vision and high standards of Walt Disney could produce an unprecedented spectacle like their eighty-three minute masterpiece.
Pablo Berger’s 2012 film Blancanieves stands on its own – there is literally nothin’ else quite like it.
And here is Why.
It’s a Spanish film — but you won’t have to worry about subtitles.
(Not for the reason you think, anyway.)
It is a silent film adaptation of the Brothers Grimm’s classic tale of Snow White.
Set in 1920s Spain. MADE in 2010’s Spain.
Without going further into the film, let’s stop and take those two things in for a sec: the silent-film style, which (when done right – and this film is unquestionably doing it right) commands your full attention. And the scene-shift: from the familiar Black Forest of fairy tale stories, to Spain in the Roaring Twenties.
Now, let’s go a smidge deeper. Into the plot itself.
We begin at a corrida (bullfight), where Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is fighting six bulls. Not all at once, but still – an impressive roster for the afternoon. As the first bull prepares to come out, he drops into a knees-out crouch, to show the world that he’s got cojones a-plenty.
He drops the first five in montage, then - as he is about to face Bull #6: Lucifer – turns to his pregnant wife up in the stands and says one of the single. Most. Laughably foreboding. Things. I have ever heard.
“To you, and to the child we are expecting!”
… I’ma skip ahead a bit, cuz I don’t wanna ruin it for you. But let’s just say that things do not continue to go very hunky-dory from here.
This film is clever. VERY clever.
It knows that we know this story.
And - like the very best familiar stories being told fresh – it uses that knowledge against us.
We know the beats, the form that the tale must take. But along with adding the cultural flesh of the era onto the bones of the fairy tale, it deepens the relationships between characters. And it does all this with panache.
Not only does it breathe life back into a story that we’ve all heard, but it gives depth where many other renditions fall into flat characterization. Disney’s classic film is beautifully animated, and its particular vision of the Grimm tale has become deeply ingrained in the world-vision OF it - but its characters are simple and straightforward. Not that anything otherwise was needed, but that’s another point entirely.
Point here is: there IS depth. There are remarkable actors, and moments of characterization. Carmencita (Sofía Oria, as the young Snow White) doesn’t have the power to summon woodland critters at her whistle, but she has an adorable rooster named Pepé. The Evil Stepmom (Maribel Verdú) exudes evil, but with a chilling sort of confident joy. And Cacho plays a role which depends centrally on graceful physicality, and its absence.
The cinematography is gorgeous. There is a measured darkness to the film, that never overwhelms it entirely but is always on the verge. Happiness comes suddenly in this film, and is always terribly brief.
Neo-silence is a small scene. There isn’t, y’know, clamoring public interest in bringing back silent film - so it’s rare to see a big-budget film in Silent Style.
In Blancanieves, Pablo Berger has created a diamond: compressing into 105 minutes one of the gosh-darn-greatest things I’ve watched in a while. Hell, the EYES of its cast beat out the physicality of most Hollywood A-listers. They communicate worlds of emotion in a glance, and when eyes meet (as when Villalta meets his daughter for the second time) they tell a story you won’t find anywhere in the script.
I’ve been writing about this film for an hour, but don’t feel I’ve done anything like justice to the thing. To the comedy, the tension, the genius of the script its execution and the excellent cast who bring it all to life.
Ahh hell. It’s saying something. A fraction of what can & oughta BE said about Blancanieves - but it’s a start. I’ve been studiously holding back on spoilers, which limits what I can say greatly (at the expense of leaving y’all twists and turns to discover as you watch). I could (and should) do another whole blog on the bullfighting.
…I haven’t even said anything about the bullfighting dwarves.