Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2013


El matadora

'Blancanieves' is a triumphant and thrilling silent interpretation of a classic fairy tale

Cohen Media Group
Director: Pablo Berger
Screenplay: Pablo Berger
Starring: Macarena García, Maribel Verdú, Sofía Oria, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Josep Maria Pou, Ramón Barea, Pere Ponce, Jinson Añazco and Emilio Gavira
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 44 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

At the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's winter event earlier this year, there was a screening of J. Searle Dawley's 1916 silent version of Snow White, which is said to have significantly influenced Disney's landmark 1937 adaptation.

I was unable to make it to the mini-festival, but having now seen Blancanieves, I can add one more thing to the list of reasons I wish I'd made the trip. If nothing else, Dawley's film would have made for a fascinating companion piece to Blancanieves, a new silent interpretation of the Grimm fairy tale, and one that comes nearly a century after the aforementioned version. I would love to compare not only the way the two incarnations tailored the material for their respective eras and audiences, but how silent-film language informed and altered the way each version of the story was told.

No one could mistake Blancanieves for a relic from the 1920s - some of its sensibilities are too modern for that*. But what is unmistakable is the DNA of the films of, among others, Murnau, Pabst and Lang, particularly in the expressionistic photography (there's one kaleidoscopic image in particular that distinctly calls Metropolis to mind) and editing. But writer/director Pablo Berger also carves out a unique identity for his film.

* Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist was similar in that way. Despite being (mostly) silent, it was deliberately drawing influence from decades' worth of classical American and European cinema, not just the silents of the '20s.

Berger transplants the well-known fable onto Spain of the 1920s and into the world of bullfighting, and it's in the arena itself that the filmmaker does some of his most impressive work. There's such a palpable sense of rhythm to those scenes, with the images carefully pieced together to coalesce with the drums and the moracas of the soundtrack, the cuts getting shorter and quicker as the music propulsively ramps up its speed.

There was always something distinctly musical about classic silent cinema, even when viewed without accompaniment. The movement of the performers' bodies, the careful, melodic piecing-together of every image, the expressiveness of the compositions. That's true of great filmmaking even today - in so many ways, movies are more similar to music than literature or theatre - but there was an unequivocal brand of artistry in the silent era that brought out the musicality of the stories being told.

That's something Berger seems to understand implicitly. He uses Alfonso de Vilallonga's original score to great effect, so due credit belongs to the composer. But as a director, he has a knack for building a moment through images and music alone. Many of those moments in Blancanieves take on a special quality, as the film's bullfighting sequences typically come at a time of great importance to the characters - primarily over the first 10 minutes and the final half-hour.

When the movie opens, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a world-renowned matador, a man with seemingly everything going for him - he's at the top of his craft, he has a beautiful wife and his first child on the way. In the course of a single day, he effectively loses all three, suffering a debilitating injury in the arena and becoming a widower not long afterward when his wife dies in childbirth. Depressed, Antonio has little interest in raising his new daughter by himself, leaving the task instead to the girl's grandmother. It's pretty clearly signaled that Antonio's nurse, Encarna (the great Maribel Verdú), is primed for the evil Queen role, and indeed she cares for and eventually seduces Antonio, takes over his estate and proceeds to treat him like a doormat and a nuisance, all while reaping the rewards of his wealth and fame. Needless to say, Verdú nails the role.

When young Carmencita (Sofia Oria) comes to live with her father and stepmother following her grandma's death, Encarna treats her as little more than an animal, relegating her to a barn outside rather than a bedroom inside the mansion.

Many of the bullet points of the Snow White story we all know come into play. Carmen grows up into a beautiful young woman (Macarena García), survives an assassination attempt, and is rescued by seven dwarves. (Actually, despite referring to themselves as the Seven Bullfighters, there are only six of them - a joke subtly referred to periodically.) And yes, Carmen eventually finds herself in the arena, a born matador just like her father.

This take on the story, which involves a rather sweet, underplayed romance between Carmen and one of the dwarves (as opposed to a handsome prince), goes off in a few directions of its own as Berger takes real ownership of it, fashioning a triumphant feminist fable in the process. (Remember when Snow White and the Huntsman tried to do the same thing and failed miserably? Yeah.) Among the peaks, as I mentioned, are the thrilling bullfighting sequences. But perhaps the best moment - appropriately enough - is the final shot of the film, which had me applauding not just because of the image itself, but simply because of the realization that it was there, in that magical, enigmatic moment, that Berger confidently chose to end his story. It is a perfect ending.

It's easy to write off any modern silent film as a gimmick, and no doubt some have done so already with Blancanieves. But in fact, when in the hands of someone who understands it, a film like this just serves to remind us how rich silent language was and is. No amount of time can alter that.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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