The broad strokes are ingrained in all of us: the evil stepmother, a banished princess, seven dwarfs, a glass coffin, and a poison apple. Blancanieves, a Spanish production of the familiar tale of Snow White, snatches the tale back from Uncle Walt and places it firmly in the hands of The Brothers’ Grimm. Last year saw the release of two Snow White movies, Mirror Mirror (Tarsem Singh) and Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders), but it was Spanish writer/director Pablo Berger who really put a unique spin on the familiar tale: Andalusia, Spain, 1920s, black and white, and silent. Considering that it is only the second silent movie made in the past five years, there is no doubt that it will be compared to the Academy Award winning French film, The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius 2011), but it is an unfair comparison. The Artist paid homage to the great silents of Hollywood, but it still used silent film tropes to comment on movies and the business in general. Blancanieves is a silent that uses silent film techniques to tell a story, simple as that. Watching The Artist is like an Introduction to Hollywood at the local community college. To watch Blancanieves is to be transported to the time before Al Jolson hit us with “Toot Toot Tootsie”.
The Matador, Antonio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is led to the ring. He faces a giant beast of a bull, aptly named Satan, and fights the beast with grace and skill. His pregnant wife (Inma Cuesta), roughly thirty-five minutes from delivering, supports her husband from the stands. The dance goes beautifully, the Matador in total control. He raises his saber to deliver the deathblow, but a cameraman has snuck into the arena, and right as the bull charges, the camera blows the flash, distracting the Matador at the crucial moment and he is gored. The Matador is taken to surgery, and his wife, due to shock and stress, goes into labor. Fate deals a heavy blow to the couple as the mother gives birth to a daughter, but dies in the process. The Matador is paralyzed from the neck down, never to fight again.
Daughter Carmen (Sofía Oria) and is raised away from her father, by her Grandmother (Ángela Molina), who dies on the day of Carmen’s First Communion. Carmen is sent to her Father’s compound where her stepmother, Encarna (Maribel Verdú) will look after her. This transition in Carmen’s life is handled with a single image: a white communion dress is submerged into a bucket, only to come up jet black with dye. Young directors take note, this is how you tell a story in pictures.
Encarna was the nurse that cared for Antonio and she quickly promoted herself to wife and head of household. One look at this woman, and you know she is up to no good. Pretty, but not in a beautiful manner, her smile stretched thin across her face. She wastes no time making Carmen’s life miserable, banning her from visiting her father, locking her in a cellar with a mound of coal to shovel, and killing her pet rooster, Pepe.
Carmen manages to sneak into Antonio’s room and the two start to build a relationship. He teaches her how to bullfight and she brings meaning back to his life. Encarna finds out and dispatches her husband by pushing him down the stairs. Carmen (now a young lady played by the beautiful Macarena García) escapes a similar fate and joins a traveling group of bullfighting dwarfs. When they find out that she has the skills, they quickly make her the head of the troupe, referring to themselves as Blancanieves and the Seven Dwarfs. Never mind that there are only six, it’s easier to capitalize on something that everyone knows about than to accurately portray reality. A series of twists and turns follow, leading to a predictable but exciting climax, and a surprising conclusion that I won’t ruin here.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is such a familiar tale that it seems impervious to revision. A silent treatment of the story suggests that the writer/director has altered the basic DNA of the story, but he hasn’t. The style is a gimmick really, a successful one, but a gimmick none-the-less. The strength of Blancanieves is that it refuses to talk down to its audience. It never holds our hands and explains that this is a silent movie and these are the rules. Nor does it stop to reiterate the plot points of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. You either get it or you don’t. Those are the movies that work the best, they don’t squander our time and they don’t insult our intelligence. Blancanieves knows that it’s audience isn’t stupid, and that they are more than willing to sit still for an hour and forty-five minutes if the story is good enough. It is.