Judge Gordon Sullivan likes his snow steel-mill gray.
Once upon a time there was a girl named Carmen…
It's difficult to craft stories that last. If they're too specific, then they don't get taken up and reworked by others, as is often the case with many eighteenth and nineteenth century novels—all those details and characters keep the stories from being adaptable. On the other side, make a story too general, and it just becomes a trope: "Damsel in distress" is not a story, even if it's used in a lot of places. Most fairy tales hit that sweet spot, with a strong core story that can be reworked with different details by other. Blancanieves proves that the Snow White story can survive in a silent adaptation with bullfighting dwarfs and a Spanish setting. Fans of silent cinema and whimsical yet adult takes on the fairy tale will appreciate the film.
Facts of the Case
Blancanieves opens on Antonio (Daniel Giménez Cacho, Get the Gringo), a swaggering bullfighter in the ring. His pregnant wife looks on. When Antonio is tragically gored by one of the bulls, his wife Carmen (Inma Cuesta) goes into labor. At the hospital Antonio is saved but is a quadriplegic, while Carmen dies in childbirth after delivering Carmencita (Sofia Oria). In the wake of his wife's death, Antonio marries the evil Encarna (Maribel Verd ú, Pan's Labyrinth). Eventually, Carmencita (Macarena Garcia as the grownup Carmencita) moves in with her father and stepmother, though Encarna keeps the little girl from her father as much as possible. Encarna finally succeeds in offing Antonio. When she sends the young Carmencita out to the desert to pick flowers, the chauffeur (who is sleeping with Encarna) assaults the young girl before drowning her. Carmencita is revived by a troupe of bullfighting dwarves who take the young girl in, and their adventure ensues.
The Artist was in a weird position—though it was critically acclaimed and certainly had more eyeballs on it than the average black-and-white foreign flick, it didn't do as well at the box office as the buzz would suggest. For the uninitiated, the silent film aspects were daunting, and on the other hand, silent film fans justly complained that The Artist got silent film wrong. The main complaint is that The Artist treats silent film as if it were its own genre, rather than a technology that birthed most of the genres we currently recognize. So, while the film could be whimsical and tongue-in-cheek about "silent" film, it ultimately showed little appreciation for the genre.
Blancanieves doesn't suffer the same fate. Unlike The Artist's somewhat ironic lionization of classical Hollywood silent films, Blancanieves turns to the European tradition. More specifically, the film looks back on the classical French period that produced films like Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. As a mini-genre, these films prized the medium of silent film for its surrealism, its ability to evoke fantasy, dreams, and desire. Blancanieves returns to this era, offering a story and presentation that perfectly captures the feel of a fairytale filled with childlike wonder. All with no spoken dialogue.
Atmosphere is the key to Blancanieves. We're already familiar with the story, and thanks to our familiarity, we know who to root for easily. With no dialogue to establish traditional notions of character, what impresses about Blancanieves is the way that director Pablo Berger evokes those classics of French silent cinema without feeling like a retread. The film wisely opens with tragedy, immediately involving the audience, but it's further helped by the fact that our initial access to the world is mostly through the eyes of a child. Fans of Guillermo Del Toro will recognize this formula and realize its effectiveness.
One of the chief beauties of silent cinema that has largely been lost in the era of sound is the focus on faces. Though we still have close-ups in contemporary cinema, our view of most actors is compromised by the fact that their lips are moving and we're distracted by their dialogue. We no longer get the silent contemplation of interesting faces (except in a few rare cases, like the weathered visage of Clint Eastwood). Blancanieves is perfectly cast for face. Antonio is full of confidence (and more than a touch of arrogance). The young Carmencita is all wide-eyed innocence and terror at her stepmothers, while the older version of Carmencita is lost in a world she can't remember. Though these aren't the typical performances we're used to, they convey the rich world of the film perfectly.
Blancanieves (Blu-ray) gets exactly the kind of disc it deserves. The film was shot on Super16 film in black-and-white before a digital intermediary. The resulting 1.33:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is gorgeous. Despite the relative lack of grain (usually the result of over-enthusiastic digital noise reduction), the image here is clean and detailed throughout. Sharpness isn't always perfect, but that's a limitation of the format and only serves the dreamy narrative even more ably. Contrast is strong throughout, with deep black levels that remain consistent and noise-free. The disc offers a DTS-HD 5.1 track that is comprised entirely of the film's score (by Alfonso de Vilallonga). The instruments are rich and detailed, and there's a bit of directionality along with healthy use of the subwoofer. For a "silent" film, this is a magnificent track.
Extras start with a 30-minute making of that features interviews with Berger as well as members of the cast. Berger returns for a brief intro or "presentation" on the film, offering some of his philosophical insights. Berger also offers a "director's diary" that covers behind-the-scenes aspects of the shoot. Finally, the disc includes a short featurette on the performance of the film's score. The disc is housed in a clear case that includes a booklet with photographs and discussion of Berger and composer Alfonso de Vilallonga. We also get a "director's statement" on the film. The set also includes a card with a download code to get a digital copy of the film's music, and a DVD copy of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course if a foreign, black-and-white silent film adaptation of Snow White doesn't sound like your thing, then it probably isn't. The film isn't in a rush to get to the end, and it takes the commitment to silent film conventions very seriously.
Blancanieves was one of the final films championed by the late Roger Ebert, and it's not hard to see why. A very human take on the fairytale that combines a fantastic story with a pitch-perfect evocation of a bygone era, Blancanieves is essential viewing for fans of the fairytale or foreign art house fare.
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