Review: Blancanieves

Directed by: Pablo Berger
Written by: Pablo Berger
Starring: Maribel Verdú, Emilio Gavira, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Ángela Molina, Pere Ponce, Macarena García
Released: October 24, 2013
Grade: A-

Blancanieves
Blancanieves (pronounced blan-ca-nie-ves) is a Spanish black-and-white silent film. Put your hands up if you’ve seen one of those lately. While I realise this film isn’t going to attract the mainstream Transformers-loving crowd, it’s fantastic to see it getting a limited release here in Australia. Perhaps cinema managers are slightly more optimistic after the success of The Artist – the French black-and-white silent film that won the best picture Oscar back in early 2012.

It’s a story we’ve heard before but Blancanieves tries to put a “modern” spin on the classic Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, Snow White. It’s set in the early part of the 20th century and begins by introducing us to Antonio Villalta (Gavira), a renowned bull fighter who regularly performs in front of huge, adoring crowds. Life is good for Antonio. He has fame, he has fortune and he has a beautiful wife.

Unfortunately, his life is about to take several tragic turns. Antonio is left a quadriplegic after being savagely gored by a bull. Moments later, his wife dies during childbirth leaving him on his own with an infant daughter, Carmencita. It gets worse. Looking for someone to help him take care of Carmencita moving forward, he is tricked into marrying Encarna (Verdú), a selfish young nurse who is only interested in Antonio for his money.

Carmencita endures a traumatic childhood at the hands of her villainous step-mother. She is forced to sleep in a filthy rock cabin that is kept separate from the main mansion. She isn’t allowed to eat inside the house and she is prohibited from interacting with her father. Such an upbringing might be too difficult for some… but Carmencita draws on her inner strength and is determined to prove that her life is worth something. Teaming up with a group of short-statured bull fighters, she wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and restore the family’s proud legacy.

Writer-director Pablo Berger admitted he was a little upset when he first heard about The Artist screening at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival to huge acclaim. He’d been working on the idea of reinvigorating the silent film genre only to be trumped by French director Michel Hazanavicius who’d snuck in just before him.

Thankfully, there are a lot of cinemas across the globe and there’s certainly room for more than one black and white silent movie. Blancanieves went on to claim 10 Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of the Academy Awards) including a win for best picture. It edged out Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible – the 2004 tsunami film with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor.

This is a beautiful film to watch. I’m not saying that all films should be “silent” but it’s refreshing to watch a movie where you focus more on visuals as opposed to words. You try to gauge how a character is feeling from their gestures and facial expressions. It makes you realise how over-reliant we can sometimes be when it comes to dialogue. Maribel Verdú took the best actress prize at the Goya Awards and it’s easy to see why. We don’t hear her say a thing… but she’ll still get under your skin as the vain, egotistical step-mother.

I’m also a fan of the adaptation. We’ve seen fairy tales transformed into action flicks (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Snow White & The Huntsman) but this is more creative. There are some nice touches (such as the dwarves) and it preserves the emotion of the original story. Pablo Berger is also to be applauded for the setting. To tie in with the black and white silent movie theme, I like the approach of using 1920s Spain and capturing the country’s love for bull fighting.

Just prior to his death in April, iconic film critic Roger Ebert selected Blancanieves to screen at his annual Overlooked Film Festival in Illinois. He realised this was a wonderful film and he wanted it seen and appreciated by a much wider audience. Take his advice and don’t miss the chance to see it while it screens here in Australia.