Creating adult versions of well-known children’s stories seems to be a trend at the moment but a new Spanish, silent, black-and-white film inspired by Grimm Brother’s Snow White takes the transformation to a new level. From flamenco dancing to fervent Catholicism and violent bullfights, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves embellishes the original story with distinctly Spanish colouring.
The film possesses the gruesome charm of Angela Carter’s retellings of famous fairy-tales and the stylistic sophistication of classical cinema. It tells the story of Carmen (Macarena García), a daughter of a famous bullfighter Antonio Villalta, who has to cope with the absence of her mother and the cruel actions of her father’s new wife (Maribel Verdú). Finally, she loses her memory, finds support and friendship within a group of bullfighting dwarfs, and discovers that she has her father’s talents.
Blancanieves is much darker than the trailers suggest, almost as if the distributor was worried that cruelty, gore, and decay (as well as implied necrophilia) might repel the potential audience. In fact, it is the film’s brutality that creates its distinctive, seductively morbid atmosphere. Blancanieves manages to maintain the balance between the joyful and the miserable, despite strongly leaning towards the latter. It succeeds mostly because it dresses all the dramatic events in the elegant guise of an exaggerated world of a sinister fairy-tale. When a string of tragic, life-changing, and traumatic incidents happen to Carmen she persists in her genuine, wide-eyed, and doomed innocence. She can only be broken by the film’s disturbing punch-line: her ‘happy ending’.
The black-and-white photography is stunning and would be a pleasure to watch even without the plot to support it. Blancanieves pays countless tributes to great cinema’s most gothic moods – from Hitchcock’s Rebecca to Buñuel’s Viridiana. It has sequences of brilliant fluidity, characterised by a confident use of silent film aesthetics. There are many beautiful little touches, such as the scene where Carmen appears to wince at the sight of her stepmother in her father’s wedding photograph, just for the camera to reveal that her grandmother pulls her hair while brushing it and causes the reaction. An impressive shot of young Carmen’s white dress being dyed black conveys her transition from joy and innocence to mourning and entrapment through a sophisticated and elegant image and with no need for words. All these moments build up towards Carmen’s bullfight, a centrepiece of the film and its emotional climax.
Bullfighting is crucial for the story. It is probably not a coincidence that Catalonia’s 2010 ban on bullfighting took effect in 2012, when the film premiered in Spain. The sport was criticised as barbaric and outdated. Yet, it’s a custom so closely linked to Spanish sense of national pride that discontinuing it is often discussed as an act of pushing Spanish culture and tradition towards oblivion.
Blancanieves presents bullfighting as impressive and brave. The sequence of Carmen’s memories returning while she faces a bull during a corrida brings all the strands of the film together and reunites Carmen with her dead father. Bullfighting becomes an experience intense and significant enough for her to overcome her memory loss, a plot point which both speaks of the strength of Carmen’s feelings and addresses the problem of a Spanish cultural ‘amnesia’.
The film’s stance on bullfighting leads to some questionable assumptions. Antonio’s decision to fight six bulls to celebrate his wife’s pregnancy is portrayed as heroic rather than irresponsible. Also, his rejection of Carmen after his wife’s death is never questioned and quickly forgiven.
Despite these problems, Blancanieves is impressive and, at its best, manages to capture the charm of great silent films. The stylish close-ups of Carmen make it apparent that looking at an actor takes up a different quality in silence and in black-and-white. We look at her and her surroundings with the level of contemplation reserved for paintings while absorbing the story through images rather than spoken dialogue. Audiences have been missing this experience since the end of the silent era.