Writer/Director: Pablo Berger
Featuring: Maribel Verdú, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Ángela Molina, Sofia Oria, Macarena Garcia
Blancanieves, Pablo Berger's silent, black-and-white adaptation of "Snow White," is everything Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is not: funny and poignant by turns, equal parts grotesque and romantic, visually enthralling, with a sting in the tail. There's passion and magic in every crisply composed 1:33 frame. Forget CGI witches, leather jerkins and steampunk pistols, this is the way a Brothers Grimm fairy tale should be brought to the screen.
In this iteration, Snow White is Carmen, born as the only child of a champion bullfighter and a beautiful flamenco dancer in 1920s Andalusia. A dramatic accident in the arena leaves her mother dead and her father, Antonio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), comatose. Enter Encarna (Maribel Verdú), an ambitious nurse who sets her sights on becoming the bullfighter's next wife. She bullies him into marriage as soon as he regains consciousness and takes her place as the Wicked Queen to his impotent King.
Carmencita (Sofia Oria) spends her happy early years with her grandmother, learning to honor the memory of her dead mother and her emasculated father, and to love the baile and palmas of her birthright. Tragedy deposits her at her father's gates and subjects her to the boiling gaze of her stepmother. Encarna has arranged life to her liking, frittering away her husband's money on couture and fine furnishings, and indulging in S&M play with her driver. The last thing she wants is a brat running about the place. So she cuts off all of Carmencita's hair, dresses her as a servant and forbids her from ever visiting her father's chamber. Meanwhile, Antonio sits lonely and morose in his bathchair, immobile, drinking through a tube, unaware that his daughter — already the image of her mother — is even inside his house.
So far, so V.C. Andrews. Psychosexual melodrama is key to this adaptation, with the latent neglect of the original story heightened into actual child abuse. Verdú's portrayal of the Wicked Queen makes both Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron look like middle school mean girls. Cruelty plays constantly about Encarna's lips as she flounces around in fabulous Art Deco frocks or dominatrix gear, devising new ways to mistreat her husband and stepchild. Her attitude to the Electra Complex in the house? Bring it! But wily Carmencita manages to evade Encarna and sneaks into her father's room. When she starts to build a relationship with the incapacitated bullfighter, a showdown between the two women in his life is inevitable.
It's a long time coming, however. Carmencita grows into Carmen (Macarena Garcia) and is taken out into the woods to be slain by the driver, but she escapes and is rescued by a caravan full of bull-fighting dwarves who welcome the beautiful young girl into their merry troupe and, well, you know the rest. Or you think you do. One of the great pleasures of Blancanieves is the way the narrative subverts the conventions and symbols of the original fairy tale. The dwarves' cottage, Snow White's domestic servitude, the poison apple and the mirror and glass coffin are all present but warped beyond recognition through writer/director Berger's looking glass. All supernatural elements have been stripped from the story, turning it into a bold satire on vanity and the choices women make. This makes for an unpredictable and, in some moments, disturbing ride.
Like last year's The Artist, Blancanieves takes advantage of contemporary camera technology to pay tribute to the era of silent film. Berger structures every scene inside the neat Academy ratio, framing his leading ladies in luscious, glamour-lit monochrome. Without dialogue, the narrative pressure falls on mise en scène, reaction shots and the complex rise and fall of the flamenco-driven soundtrack. Alfonso Vilallonga's score could almost tell the story by itself, evoking period and ethnicity along with emotion, layering sentimental strings cheek-by-jowl with the clatter of Sevillian boot heels.
Bullfighting is essential to the plot, and Blancanieves has attracted a lot of criticism from animal rights activists because of this. The film has been accused of glorifying the death of bulls in the ring, and there are concerns about what eventually happened to the animals shown in the film after the cameras stopped rolling. While there are scenes that celebrate the pomp and pageantry of the occasion of bullfighting, and the dancer's skills a matador must possess, the bouts between man and beast are depicted as brutal, dangerous and degrading. The only victor is the jeering crowd, slavering for entertainment. There's no glory, only pain and distress.
The controversy surrounding the bullfighting scenes may have cost Blancanieves a Foreign Film Oscar nom. They provide one more uncomfortable edge in this jagged tale, which also includes an extended (and hilarious, but not) corpse photography scene, sideshow necrophilia gags and the least politically correct dwarves since Under the Rainbow — but at least Berger used real actors with dwarfism, instead of CGI versions of Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone and Ian McShane like the cop-out Snow White and the Huntsman. Disney this ain't, and that's its charm.
Of all the so-called "dark reimaginings of fairy tales" pumped out by the Hollywood machine over the past few years, nothing matches the pure wickedness and verve of Blancanieves. Do your inner child a favor. Leave Hansel and Gretel and Jack the Giant Slayer to the multiplex mob and go a-hunting for this arthouse gem.