There are some stories that will always stick with us. Tales told to us when we were young that we will in turn pass on to our children. Though certain details will no doubt change, or extra emphasis added at particular points, the overall heart of the story will remain the same. No matter how many times we have either told or heard the story, we can still be blown away when presented with a new interpretation that causes us to ponder why no one thought to do this before.
Pablo Berger achieves such a feat with his stunning and inspired film Blancanieves. A modern silent film that feels perfectly at home with the classics of the medium, Blancanieves is a treat from a visual and storytelling standpoint. Berger creates a truly magical cinematic experience by offering a new take on The Brothers Grimm famous Snow White fairy tale. The film is no children’s tale mind you. Berger takes great pleasure in slipping adult themes, such as sadomasochism and adultery, into his film. There is a giddiness to Berger’s playful approach throughout the film that is simply infectious.
The plot of the film stays true to the Snow White story but with a distinct Spanish twist. A famous matador, Antonio Viallalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is paralyzed while in the ring. The shock of the event sends his pregnant wife into labor where she eventually dies giving birth to their daughter, Carmen (Sofía Oria). Eventually Antonio moves on with his life and marries the cold and calculating Encarna (Pan’s Labyrinth’s Maribel Verdú), his former nurse from his stay in the hospital. Carmen is left to be raised by her grandmother (Ángela Molina).
After her grandmother’s sudden passing, Carmen is sent to live with her father. However, she quickly realizes that Encarna has taken over complete control of her father’s estate. Not only does Encarna keep wheel-chair bound Antonio confined to his room, but she freely spends his money and carries on an affair with the household chauffeur. Treating Carmen no different than she treats her other maids, Encarna immediately puts Carmen to work doing manual labour around the house. It is only when Carmen eventually sneaks upstairs that she is able to reconnect with the father that she never knew. Filled with a new found sense joy and purpose, Antonio begins to teach his daughter the art of bullfighting.
Unfortunately the bond between Antonio and Carmen, now a woman played by Macarena García, is placed in jeopardy once Encarna puts plans in motion to have both of them killed. This leads to Carmen encountering a troupe of bullfighting dwarves, known as Los Enanitos Toreros. Dubbed Blancanieves, which is Spanish for Snow White, by the dwarves, Carmen begins to follow in her father’s footsteps becoming a famed matador.
One of the mesmerizing aspects of Blancanieves is how well Berger casually incorporates iconic moments from the Snow White story into his film. For example, there is no talking mirror proclaiming who is the fairest of all, instead there is only a brief but effective shot of the evil Encarna looking at her aging reflection in a rippling pool. It is smart choices like this that ensures Blancanieves never feels like a gimmick. While the film’s story is engaging enough to stand on its own, Berger’s nod to the source material only helps to accentuate the overall charm of the film. The same can be said for many of the stylistic touches, such as Carmen’s white first communion dress being transitioned into a black dress for mourning.
The mark of a strong silent film is not only the directorial choices that cultivate the visual storytelling, but the performances as well. The actors must do a lot of the heavy lifting. It is no small task being asked to convey both story and emotion without having a voice to rely on. However, the entire cast pulls it off admirably. The always wonderful Maribel Verdú is fantastic as the greedy Encarna, she truly revels in the sinfully devilish role. Sofía Oria and Macarena García are also exceptional as the young and older versions of Carmen. Oria in particular is an actress to keep an eye on in the future. She perfectly captures both the innocence and the fear needed to make Carmen such an engaging character.
Though there has been a rather large resurgence in fairy tale inspired films and television shows, Blancanieves soars far above the other offerings we have seen recently. It is a truly original take on the Snow White lore that will surely be passed down to future generations moving forward. Blancanieves is one of those rare treats that reminds us that film still has the power to amaze us. To put it simply this is one of the best films to be released this year. Do not walk, but run to your closest theatre to see it.