It's too bad that Spain's official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film for this year's Academy Awards is no longer in the running. That country's latest interpretation of Snow White, Blancanieves, would have obviously benefitted from the boost. Now it's in danger of becoming another obscure foreign film.
The movie's handicap might be the one gimmick that academy audiences would have found original if it were any other year. Like a certain big winner of last year's Academy Awards, Blancanieves is shot in black and white with intertitles instead of spoken dialogue. In so many words, it's a silent film. But whereas last year's silent film seems to merely ape a '50s musical comedy--as if completely drenched from its technicolor coating--rather than serve as the serious homage to, among others, Lang, Ford and Murnau that its filmmakers claim, Blancanieves is the real deal. With its grayscale dial set to eleven, imagery that's as surreal as it is mundane and a plot that's as dark as Tod Browning's early talkies, Blancanieves deserves much appreciation among connoisseurs and general audiences alike--though, its early cinema affectation is more on par with the idiosyncratic and baroque "silent films" of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin than with Academy fluff. In other words, the little ones should sit this one out.
Inspired by the ever-popular Brothers Grimm fairy tale and written and directed by Pablo Berger the narrative has been relocated to 1920s Sevilla, which in the hands of Spanish-born Berger isn't so much the warm cradle of Latin culture as much as it is a stand-in for Yorkshire or any such suitable place for Gothic melodrama. As if inspired from a novel by one of the Brontë sisters, Berger transforms the simple purity vs. evil story into a dark slice of Spanish romanticism complete with a healthy dose of contempt for the bourgeoisie and various examples of traditional Hispanic costumbrismo, the depiction of everyday life. It's with that depiction of the mundane--albeit, glamorous and exotic to modern, American eyes--that Blancanieves leavens the black heart tendencies of its storyteller. For each anachronistic display of kink or tragedy there are scenes of pure innocence and joy that come from a child practicing her flamenco dancing, for example, or from simply watching someone fall in love like they would in a fairy tale. Not that all the darkness is necessarily played straight, either. As with his previous film, the amateur pornographers comedy, Torremolinos 73, Berger plays the fetish stuff for laughs, quick and tame; with a game (and gainly!) Maribel Verdú (Pan's Labyrinth, Y Tu Mamá Tambien) playing the evil stepmother, Encarna (as in incarnate) and relishing every crack of the whip, every snarl of the lip. All the while, an audience enraptured by the vibrant flamenco guitar of the multi-talented Alfonso de Vilallonga.
So with all its artistic license and poetic flourishes one might easily forget that a story about a girl who with the help of her helpless father grows up to become a famous bullfighter for a traveling circus is really the fairy tale of Snow White. I know I did halfway through this dreamy proposition of a movie. But like many an ebullient dream, this story sits at the precipice of nightmare. Be forewarned: true to its origins, there are shadows in the light. And an ending that's fairly Grimm.