Once upon a time, the idea of a film being silent, foreign and — steee-rike three! — black and white equated to box-office poison. Then 2011’s The Artist won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture; earned $133 million worldwide; and lived happily ever after.
Hoping for the same storybook ending is Spain’s Blancanieves. While every bit a celebration of the cinema as The Artist, this one is arguably more accessible because it plays in the currently in-vogue sandbox of fairy tales: Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and Jack the Giant Slayer among them.
In finding inspiration in the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White, this film is higher-minded than all of those (not for nothing will it screen Friday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art). Readers of the Grimm stories know they veer wildly, wonderfully off-course from the sanitized, Disneyfied versions, so it’s only fitting that Blancanieves begins with tragedy.
The celebrated matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho, Get the Gringo) is gored in the ring, but survives; at the same time, his wife isn’t as lucky, expiring during childbirth. The baby girl, Carmen, is raised happily by her grandmother (Ángela Molina, Broken Embraces) until death knocks again.
As the girl is sent to live with her now-paralyzed father and wicked stepmother (a scene-stealing Maribel Verdú, Pan’s Labyrinth), the parallels to the Snow White story
burst to the forefront. The beautiful but evil woman forbids Carmen to
ascend the stairs and sends her to the chicken coop for punishment.
Growing into quite the tomboy, an adult Carmen (relative newcomer Macarena García) is almost killed, but is saved by six dwarves — that’s right, not seven — who happen to be traveling bullfighters.
Because Carmen experiences amnesia, she can’t even remember her name, so they dub her Snowwhite (one word), “like the girl in the tale.”
We all know where the story goes from there, so writer-director Pablo Berger need not have taken an hour and three quarters for his retelling, especially with the climax’s Christ imagery being so heavy-handed, it begs for excision. That’s one way of saying Blancanieves just barely begins to wear out its welcome.
And something like this is indeed welcome. Set in 1920s Spain, it is rich with culture and details, both rendered in splendid, seductive visuals and lushly given voice by a versatile score from composer Alfonso de Vilallonga (Transsiberian).
Blancanieves carries precious few title cards; rather, Berger lets nearly everything be conveyed by what the eye can see. So assured are these pictures he paints — the final shot especially — it’s remarkable to learn this is only his second feature film. —Rod Lott