2012 was the year the Snow White story became a hot property, with two Hollywood films, Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, vying for box office attention.
Predating both of these productions was Blancanieves, a 2011 silent Spanish retelling of the story now making the rounds of the American art house circuit. While director Pablo Berger and cinematographer Kiko de la Rica render the film in luminous, grainy black and white, the effect is less a tribute to early cinema and more an immersive recreation of the early cinema experience, with subtle modernized flourishes. A mix of seemingly disparate elements, it works surprisingly well.
The setting is southern Spain in the 1920s, approximately. When famous toreador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is left a quadriplegic after a bullfighting injury and his wife (Inma Cuesta) dies in childbirth, their newborn baby, Carmencita, is sent to live with her grandmother. Antonio weds his nurse, the scheming, avaricious Encarna (Maribel Verdú), who’s in the marriage for the disabled bullfighter’s immense wealth.
After her grandmother dies and Carmencita goes to live with her father in his lavish mansion, the familiar dynamic of the fairy tale kicks in: innocent child, evil stepmother, murder. Berger adds amusing, sadomasochistic touches in a couple of scenes with Encarna and in others schools the young Carmencita in bullfighting technique through her father, setting up the last third of the story. This final section begins as light and hopeful, but finally manifests the dark thread that runs through the earlier scenes.
As a silent film, the beauty of Blancanieves naturally lies in the success of its visuals, and except for a handful of shots Berger remains faithful to the style of early cinema. This evocative mimicry gives the film a hypnotic quality: are we watching something modern, or an artifact of the 1920s? Even when the well-worn story peeks through the effective Spanish trappings, the richly shaded photography maintains the spell.
Without dialogue, the performers all do fine, nuanced work reliant almost entirely upon facial expression. Maribel Verdú conveys much of her character’s calculation and contempt through her eyes and the corners of her mouth, while the damaged geography of Cacho’s face tells of Villalta’s pride, compassion and inner defeat.
The two girls playing young Carmen, however, deserve special praise. Sofía Oria, who plays the role as a child, gives a completely natural performance without a touch of sentimentality. Wide-eyed Macarena García, as the teen-aged heroine, imbues her character with innocent wonder masking an undercurrent of loss.
Comparisons with The Artist and Hugo, recent movies that both self-consciously celebrate early filmmaking, accentuate just how effective this little film is. The winner of 10 Goyas, the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar, Blancanieves doesn’t simply wink at us from behind a polished facade. It invites us to time travel and be spellbound.
Blancanieves plays through Thursday, May 9, at Chalmette Cinemas. See www.chalmettemovies.com for showtimes.
Blancanieves, a 2011 Spanish/French production, directed by Pablo Berger. Starring Maribel Verdú, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Inma Cuesta, Ángela Molina, Sofía Oria and Macarena García.
Photographer Jason Kruppa reviews movies for NolaVie. Check him out at kruppaworks.com.