(directed by Pablo Berger, 2012)
I needed a bit of magic in my life yesterday evening, and this critically-acclaimed Spanish film proved to be just the ticket. LoveFilm really is turning out to be worth its weight in gold, because I’m not sure I would ever have come across this otherwise. For once those who dislike subtitles needn’t worry: this black-and-white marvel is a silent film and the dialogue boards have been translated into English. It’s very much in the tradition of The Artist but somehow purer: this isn’t a film that nudges you to notice how cleverly it does silent cinema; it is silent cinema, accompanied by a pitch-perfect score by Alfonso de Vilallonga.
Based on the story of Snow White, this updates the fairytale to the 1920s in Spain. If you don’t want to know anything about the plot, then skip the rest of these two paragraphs, which could be seen as spoilery (if you don’t know your folklore). Otherwise, let’s plunge in. The film introduces us to Carmen, a little girl whose mother died in childbirth and whose father, a celebrated matador paralysed in a tragic accident, has shown little interest in her since his second marriage to one of his nurses. Carmen has been brought up by her beloved grandmother, who has kept alive her mother’s memory; but when her grandmother also dies, she must go to live with her father.
Naturally her wicked stepmother Encarna (played with great verve by Maribel Verdú) exploits Carmen as slave labour, keeping her away from her stricken father; but in time, as Encarna is distracted by her own passions, Carmen finds a way to her father’s side. Unable to play properly with his daughter, he playfully teaches her bullfighting steps and for a while all is well as they find a belated happiness in one another’s company. But time passes, Encarna’s shadow grows darker, and presently an adult Carmen (Macarena García) realises that she must escape in order to survive. She is rescued from Encarna’s henchman Genaro by a travelling troupe of bullfighting dwarfs, who make it their mission to nurse the wounded (and amnesiac) girl back to health. To their delight, she proves to have an innate talent for bullfighting and, though she can’t remember her name or background, the troupe takes her to their hearts – particularly so, in the case of the handsome Rafita (Sergio Dorado). With conscious irony, they christen her Blancanieves (Snow White).
The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous: every scene has a poetic elegance, and as ever the black-and-white gives the film a crispness and clarity that you simply don’t get in colour. And that attention to detail carries through into the costumes and sets. The 1920s setting allows for some wonderful outfits and haircuts, mainly for the poisonously glamorous Verdú, who wafts around like a lethal siren of the silver screen. Here she doesn’t measure her beauty in a magic mirror, but through the medium of the celebrity press. As her innocent nemesis, García is beautiful in a very natural kind of way, with large, expressive eyes, and the kind of lithe figure that cuts rather a dash in a matador costume.
As I said earlier, the music is particularly important because the soundtrack itself is silent, and the score is almost a character in its own right: setting up a mood and subtly altering it with the unobtrusive swelling of a discordant note or melody. It’s all been done remarkably well; and I’m especially glad to report that it isn’t remotely saccharine. There are parts which have a family resemblance to Spain’s great modern fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the great thing about Blancanieves is that it takes the fairytale out of its original context without neutering the disturbing undertones of the original. You feel that here there may not be a happily-ever-after.
I don’t want to say more because if you know too much about it, it might not have the same captivating effect on you. All I can do is re-emphasise that if you enjoy the unusual, romantic or beautiful, then you should make a point of watching this. It’s a wonderful little European gem and I can’t believe that I didn’t notice it in the cinemas; because it surely must have been released somewhere in London. Do let me know if you’ve seen it; I’m hoping Isi has!
In fact, I love the style of this film so much that I thought I’d include a selection of other images as a treat. Just revel in the gorgeous aesthetic, the beautiful costumes and the luminous photography.