When renowned Spanish bullfighter Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is gored in the ring, his horrified pregnant wife immediately goes into labour. She dies giving birth to their daughter, Carmen (Sofa Oria) who goes to live with her grandmother (Angela Molina) while the now-crippled and inconsolable Antonio marries his scheming nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu). After the death of her grandmother Carmen finally returns home and reconnects with her father, in spite of her wicked stepmother’s ongoing efforts to make her life a living hell. Years pass and when Carmen (Inma Cuesta) grows up, Encarna sees to it that Antonio has a fatal ‘accident’ then arranges for her lover to dispose of his daughter. He botches the job however, leaving Carmen to be rescued from drowning in the river by seven dwarves...
Easily the most compelling re-imagining of the Snow White story in recent years, the Spanish-made Blancanieves also came within a hair’s breadth of spearheading the silent movie revival. For this was indeed another black-and-white silent film pastiche in production before though arriving in the wake of the widely celebrated The Artist (2011). Having spent years struggling to get such an ambitious, unorthodox project off the ground writer-director Pablo Berger was unsurprisingly frustrated to discover someone had beaten him to the punch. Whereas The Artist was a tribute to the Hollywood of the Roaring Twenties, Blancanieves is an unabashed ode to European silent cinema and more darkly romantic in tone. Berger’s forceful, eloquent visual storytelling draws out the human drama inherent in the fairytale whilst retaining its deliciously dark gothic splendour.
In interviews Berger stressed his admiration for French maestro Abel Gance. While his influence is undoubtedly apparent in the film’s virtuoso camerawork, the bravura editing also recalls Sergei Eisenstein and the surrealistic overtones evoke vintage Luis Buñuel. Note the inclusion of Angela Molina, star of Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), in a small but significant role. There is a vaguely Buñuelian kinky edge to certain aspects of the film (Encarna indulges in S&M games with her brutish chauffeur lover) along with scenes of baroque cruelty as when our wicked stepmother substitute forces Carmen to dine on her beloved pet chicken or has herself photographed with her husband’s corpse decked out in matador garb. Berger cleverly sidesteps the usual flaw in this fairytale, namely the passive nature of Snow White, longing for a prince to come along and save her. Here Carmen is a proactive princess who proves a vivacious, engaging presence whether incarnated by Inma Cuesta or gifted child actress Sofa Oria. Nevertheless, Maribel Verdu, among the most talented yet underrated stars in European cinema, commands the screen as the fearsome Encarna: an opportunistic social climber leeching off her husband’s wealth whilst making him a prisoner in his own home.
While the focus on bullfighting scared off some potential viewers, those that consider it a cruel and unnecessary spectator sport will be relieved to note these sequences are neither graphic nor lengthy. For good or ill, bullfighting is a major part of Spanish culture and national identity. Here the figure of the crippled bullfighter becomes an emblem of wounded Latin machismo. Similarly, by making Carmen a dancer, the story stresses the importance of rhythm and movement as a celebration of life in Spanish culture. Both of these conceits serve to underline an allegorical aspect with Carmen perhaps embodying the true romantic soul of Spain rising against the cruelty and venality of fascism as represented by Encarna, although the strangely downbeat and ambiguous finale muddles that interpretation.
Every Snow White needs her dwarves. In this story they arrive in the form of a travelling troupe of diminutive bullfighters including the token grumpy one. However, in a break from tradition they also include a transvestite and a kind-hearted handsome dwarf who usurps the prince as the love interest. When Carmen steps in to save “Grumpy” from an enraged bull she discovers her inherited bullfighting skills paving the way for a spectacular career as a female matador. Interestingly, Grumpy never really warms to Carmen and even sets out to seal her doom towards the finale, something that makes his climactic about-face hard to swallow. Once the dwarves enter the picture the film loses some of its initial momentum. It even resorts to re-staging the famous dining and dancing set-pieces from Walt Disney’s animated classic. Thereafter things diverge from the source with a far more darkly poetic, albeit somewhat cruel outcome that leaves Blancanieves less of a crowd-pleaser than The Artist though no less an artistic achievement.