The pretty girl with the boyish haircut can’t remember a thing. What’s your name? Nothing. What happened to you? Nothing. She doesn’t know where she comes from, or how she got the marks on her neck. And she clearly has no idea who these tiny men are, who rescued her the night before and now bombard her with unsettling questions. Of course, everyone familiar with the story of Snow White in its many incarnations sort of knows what has happened and where this is going, yet Pablo Berger’s witty, imaginative adaptation is more than just another reciting of the oft-told Brothers Grimm tale.
Shot in beautiful, sharp black and white with no dialogue, Blancanieves pays tribute to the 1920s European silent film era and its connections with theatrical, musical and comical forms. Set in Andalusia during the golden age of bullfighting, Berger’s folktale extravaganza centres around the adorable young Carmen (Macarena García), the daughter of a famous matador who, after a long and painful childhood under the eye of her evil stepmother (Maribel Verdú), escapes from home and finds company in a troupe of wandering, bullfighting dwarfs. Having lost her memory in a fight with the mother’s sidekick, who had orders to kill her, Carmen doesn’t realise where she, or her talent, comes from, as she follows in the footsteps of her father to become a famous matador, but it’s not long before the past catches up with her.
Guided by Kiko de la Rica’s radiant cinematography, Berger spends the first half of the film describing Carmen’s childhood (played as a child by Sofía Oria), leaving plenty of space for moments of wit and humour, while at the same time setting out the close bond between the little girl and her beloved, downcast father (Daniel Giménez Cacho), confined to a wheelchair after he was crippled in the ring and still silently grieving for his first wife, who died when giving birth to their child. Despite the obvious fairytale ambience, the film never compromises the mystical undertone that foreshadows the dark events to come. The second half, which sees Carmen eventually rising to fame in the corrida, first has a lighter feel to it, if only to build up to the tragic final act, in which the stepmother returns to the scene to accomplish her malicious plan.
In addition to the excellent performances throughout, in particular by the two female leads, what also makes this wonderfully grotesque adaptation of the Grimms’ popular fable particularly exciting is the score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, which, if slightly excessive in places, perfectly complements the creepy and dangerous atmosphere of the story.
Blancanieves may be the umpteenth reworking of Snow White, but the film, if you are willing to temporarily suspend disbelief and let yourself be enthralled by its dazzling, silent cinema magic, exhibits a boldness, and the kind of astute, fantastical entertainment, that has become all too rare. For all his command of ambitious and playful narrative ingenuity and apt technical flair, Berger’s study in demonised female vanity and the power of true beauty favours atmosphere over frenzy – and achieves it in striking fashion.
Watch the trailer: