In the wake of The Artist comes Pablo Berger’s own attempt at silent film revival: Blancanieves, a reinvention of the classic Tale of Snow White set in 1920s Seville, with one major twist: Snow White is a bullfighter. The film blends imaginative storytelling with meticulous homage, and quite possibly might succeed in being the best silent film made in the modern era.
Carmen (Macarena García/Sofía Oria) is the daughter of Seville’s most famous bullfighter. When he becomes paralyzed after being gored by a bull and her grandmother passes away, Carmen is forced to live under the despotic rule of her stepmother Encarna (Maribel Verdú). She endures the tyranny for the entirety of her childhood until one day she escapes an attempt on her life and joins a troupe of bullfighting dwarves. Her beauty and natural talent soon skyrockets them to fame, but her newfound stardom attracts the ire of Encarna, who devises a plan to bring her down once and for all.
There is much to love about this film. The performances are top notch, delivered in the classic silent style, and yet never really indulging in the extreme mugging that often characterized films of that era. Maribel Verdú deservedly tops the billing with a fantastic portrayal of the evil Encarna, a sadist with a dash of infectious charm. Sofiá Oria is endearing as the young Carmen, and Macarena García steals the show with her naive and energetic innocence, the basis for her rousing strength and her tragic vulnerability. Most encouragingly, the dwarves are played by a talented ensemble of little people, eschewing the modern fascination with using optical and digital effects to artificially shrink actors with bigger box office profiles.
In stark contrast to the painstaking polish of The Artist’s homage to American studio spectacles, Blancanieves draws upon the decidedly more liberated, inventive, and messy silent art cinema of Europe. The film’s style most closely resembles the impressionistic work of filmmakers like Dimitri Kirsanoff and Germaine Dullac: handheld cameras, an emphasis on natural lighting, and relatively fast editing compared to the early sound films that followed. Nonetheless, it pays tribute to the visual flair of some of the more famous movements of the era with some breathtaking Soviet-style rapid montages set to soaring flamenco guitars and castanets, as well as including a few hokey and outdated techniques like superimposing images to demonstrate a character’s thoughts.
Of course, this sort of nostalgia isn’t exactly universal. Even for film enthusiasts, it’s rarely a true nostalgia for a period of one’s life long gone; rather, it is more a work of gratitude for the pioneers whose work continues to inspire so many contemporary artists. Consequently, this film’s faithful reproduction of much of the era’s unabashed schmaltz might be just too silly for some who yearn for gritty, modern realism. The characters are all just a tad over-the-top, something which definitely toes the line when it comes to the dwarves’ portrayal. While most people will have no objection to the cartoony villainy of Encarna or the unimpeachable virtue of Carmen, having a troupe of freak show dwarves making fools of themselves for profit isn’t exactly Peter Dinklage winning Emmys for portraying a political power player. It’s the sort of thing that could easily antagonize viewers.
All in all, though, it’s hard to see this as anything but a resounding success. It’s difficult to make a fairy tale feel fresh, and doubly so when combining it with the stylings of ancient cinema, but Berger demonstrates his talent by succeeding in making the old into something totally new. Those who love the silent classics or who enjoyed The Artist will certainly be charmed by Blancanieves.
Editor’s Note: Made a correction regarding the release date of The Artist. We regret the error. This review was also originally published on January 17, 2013.