The story of Snow White has never failed to spark the imaginations of filmmakers. Aside from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has endured since its premiere in 1937, consider the fact that 2012 alone saw the release of two adaptations, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. Now we have Blancanieves, a Spanish import. This is arguably the boldest retelling of the Brothers Grimm legend there has ever been. The setting has been shifted to 1920s Spain, it relies more on melodrama than on fantasy, and most importantly, it’s a silent film, shot in grainy black and white in the classic ratio of 1.33:1. It didn’t make the Academy’s most recent shortlist of Best Foreign Language Film nominees – in large part, I strongly suspect, because it had only been a year since The Artist won five Oscars, including Best Picture.
One of the pleasures of watching this film is spotting all the elements from the original Snow White fairy tale. We have the same basic premise; a girl is born, her mother dies, her father remarries, and her stepmother, who turns out to be cruel and vain, wants her out of the picture. We have many of the same plot devices, including the pricking of a finger and the drawing of blood, the band of dwarfs the girl befriends, the mirror the stepmother stares into, the glass coffin, and the poisoned apple. There’s a slight nod to the Disney aesthetic, as the girl is given an animal companion in the form of a rooster. And yes, there are even hints of a romance blooming between perfect strangers, one an innocent young woman, the other a man who immediately succumbs to her beauty.
This leads me to the other pleasure of watching this film, namely noticing all the ways in which these elements have been altered. In this version of the story, Snow White has been transformed into Carmen, played as a girl by Sofia Oria and as a young woman by Macarena Garcia. Her father, the King, has been transformed into a famous and wealthy matador named Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho). Her mother, the Queen, has been transformed into Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta), a singer. Her stepmother, the Evil Queen, has been transformed into Encarna (Maribel Verdu), a spoiled and spiteful gold-digger who enjoys dressing like a glamorous silent movie star. The Seven Dwarfs have been transformed into a travelling troupe of six mini matadors, who fight against calves rather than full-grown bulls.
Carmen never knew her mother, who died during childbirth, or her father, who was ashamed and bitter after an accident in a bullfighting arena left him paralyzed. She was raised in a happy home by her grandmother (Angela Molina) until her untimely death. At that point, she’s sent to live with her father; he has since married Encarna, the woman who served as his nurse during his hospitalization and immediately set her sights on his fortune. When she arrives at the sprawling countryside estate, Carmen is sent by Encarna to sleep in the squalor of an unkempt barn, as she has been banned from the entire second floor of the house. She then has her raven hair cut short and is ordered to do all the most exhausting household chores. Of course, Carmen will eventually sneak onto the second floor, reunite with her father, and long to become a matador herself. When Encarna learns of Carmen’s treachery, she vows to have her sent into the woods and killed.
There are other superficial differences, although for the purposes of this review, they don’t much matter. What I would like to discuss are the ways in which writer/director Pablo Berger takes surprisingly daring approaches to the material. He remains true to the fairy tale’s narrative simplicity, but when it comes to characterization and atmosphere, there’s something deeper and more unsettling at work. Take, for example, two scenes, both of which feature a corpse; in each instance, Berger inexplicably yet successfully walks a very fine line between morbidity and poignancy. Let us also consider the scene in which Encarna stands in front of her mirror, trying on hats; although she never recites the “Mirror, mirror, on the wall…” incantation, she does in those few seconds primp so effortlessly that we suspect she would speak the words as an ode to her inflated ego.
And then there’s the visual motif of bullfighting, which, for more sensitive viewers like myself, comes off as more brutal than beautiful. I have a feeling that, along with technical touches like iris wipes, superimposed images, and an emotionally heightened musical score, this was an intentional move on Berger’s part; like the sport itself, the original story is simultaneously revered for its cultural legacy and condemned for its underlying gruesomeness. In this sense, Blancanieves is completely faithful to its source, its awareness of cinematic history fused with a tragic, shivery tone. Berger might have drawn inspiration from the Brothers Grimm, but that doesn’t mean he intended for his film to appeal to children. Nor did he intend to make a simple morality play with fantastic overtones. His was aiming for a sweeping, solemn melodrama, and he hit his mark.
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