Blancanieves: Toronto Review

Blancanieves Still H 2012
The Snow White tale gets doused in flamenco rhythms and shoved into the bullfighting arena in this affectionate 1920s-set tribute to European silent cinema.

Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger's reinvention of the Brothers Grimm classic is the most original of the year's Snow White makeovers.

TORONTO – Blancanieves raises the question of whether the receptiveness of international audiences to black & white silent film homage was expanded or exhausted by The Artist. Comparison is inevitable, but these two elaborate exercises in cinematic nostalgia could hardly be more different. While Michel Hazanavicius’ Oscar winner was a playful valentine to pre-talkies Hollywood, Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger’s inventive Andalusian reworking of Snow White is a love letter to 1920s European silent film, liberally mixing humor and melodrama.

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The Brothers Grimm fairy tale has been in revisionist overdrive lately, from the silly farce of Mirror, Mirror to the stylish action and minimal enchantment of Snow White and the Huntsman. Berger’s rethink is arguably more original than either of them, retelling the timeless story in a culturally specific new context, its distinctive flavor enhanced by Alfonso de Vilallonga’s sumptuous, flamenco-inflected score.

Berger sets both the opening and climactic action in a grand bullfighting arena in Seville, tying the Snow White tale to a national tradition that combines spectacle with fiery dramatics. And via the art of the toreador, he makes deft narrative use of a predominantly male ritual to give his heroine a contemporary edge.

Celebrated matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giminez Cacho) has triumphed in the ring and is nearing the finale when he sneaks a smile at his beautiful pregnant wife Carmen (Inma Ciesta) in the stands. This costs him his focus at a crucial moment. He is gored by the bull and rushed to hospital, while Carmen goes into premature labor in another ward, dying in childbirth. The calculating expression of emergency-room nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu) as she flutters her enormous fake eyelashes over the broken torero indicates from the outset the strain of arch humor attached to the villainess of the piece.

Rendered quadriplegic by his injuries, Antonio rejects his daughter Carmencita (Sofia Oria). He eventually recovers enough to marry his nurse, leaving the child to be raised by her grandmother (Angela Molina). But when the doting old woman dies, Carmencita is sent to live in the villa presided over by her wicked, nouveau-riche stepmother. Her hair hacked off, she is exiled to a dingy basement and treated like the lowest servant, forbidden from visiting her father upstairs.

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Some of the most touching moments are the stolen afternoons of Carmencita and the imprisoned Antonio, who teaches her basic skills with a bullfighter’s cape. These come in handy later when, as a teenager (Macarena Garcia takes over the role), she escapes an attempt on her life and ends up with amnesia, picked up by a traveling band of bullfighting dwarves. In an interesting twist on the original, one member of that troupe serves as a secondary villain while another stands in for Prince Charming.

Verdu goes to town milking melodramatic excess from conniving Encarna’s campy treachery and studied glamor, deliriously playing the dominatrix lady of the manor with her driver and lover, Genaro (Pere Ponce). Berger may be slyly referencing What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in scenes where Carmencita is finally invited to the family dinner table and when Encarna takes wheelchair-bound Antonio for a reckless turn on the stairs.

With frugal use of dialogue cards and expressive performances in which emotions are stamped in bold, the writer-director spins an eventful tale that is faithful to the original yet has its own quirky identity. This is especially so in the final section, where the heroine, nicknamed Blancanieves by her new companions, enjoys a rapid rise to fame after intervening during a violent episode in the bullfighting ring. But triumph segues quickly to tragedy in a haunting conclusion that borrows from Sleeping Beauty by way of Tod Browning’s Freaks.

There are minor lulls, and perhaps too much time is spent late in the action on the widowed Encarna as a preening socialite, including her dispatch of the thankless Genaro in the swimming pool, à la Norma Desmond. But the broad-strokes storytelling is generally brisk, lucid and imaginative, aided immeasurably by cinematographer Kiko de la Rica’s alluring b&w visuals.

The images range from grotesque to poignant, peppered with Bunuel-esue ocular closeups. But the film is propelled equally by de Vilallonga’s lush score, which is jaunty, suspenseful, sweet or sorrowful, as required. It’s a charming curio that cleverly reshapes a classic fairy tale.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery; opens Sept. 28 in Spain)

Production companies: Arcadia Motion Pictures, Nix Films, Sisifo Films, The Kraken Films, Noodles Production, Arte France Cinema

Cast: Maribel Verdu, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Angela Molina, Pere Ponce, Macarena Garcia, Sofia Oria, Jose Maria Pou, Inma Cuesta, Ramon Barea, Emilio Gavira, Sergio Donado

Director-screenwriter: Pablo Berger

Producers: Ibon Cormenzana, Jerome Vidal, Pablo Berger

Director of photography: Kiko de la Rica

Production designer: Alain Bainee

Music: Alfonso de Vilallonga

Costume designer: Paco Delgado

Editor: Fernando Franco

Sales: 6 Sales/Required Viewing

No rating, 104 minutes