Comments that Blancanieves – last year’s Spanish selection sent to do battle for a Best Foreign Film Oscar – is simply cashing in on or riding upon the coattails of The Artist doesn’t do either movie a service. Both are silent films shot in black and white, but Blancanieves is operating on an arguably bigger and more pure concept of what silent cinema was. Conversely, it’s also not as crowd pleasing in terms of entertainment value as The Artist was. Although despite some fairly dry patches and a plot that tends to spin its wheels at times, the pure dramatic thrust and playfulness of Blancanieves makes for an enjoyable watch despite thoughts that it probably would have been largely forgotten about in the actual silent film era.
A loose and intriguingly realized retelling of the timeless tale of Snow White, writer and director Pablo Bergen follows Carmen, the daughter of a fallen bullfighter raised by her neglectful and hurtful stepmother in 1920s Seville. In typical “Hermanos Grimm” fashion, the mother sends Carmen to the woods to be killed and she’s rescued by a band of helpful dwarves. But instead of really relying on a Prince Charming, they help her get into bullfighting shape to help her choose her own destiny.
The tone here is placed firmly on irreverent expressionism. The viewer by way of the title might be believing that every beat of the Snow White story will be hit along the way, but Bergen shatters these notions right out of the gate. He strives for art rather than nostalgia for a particular brand of storytelling. He knows the image is ultimately what’s going to connect most with the audience, and he makes some wondrous and dreamy compositions, especially within the forest and the film’s bullfights. He also slyly imbues modern humour and self-reflexivity by changing. The evil stepmother’s magic mirror into a bitchy fashion magazine, the idolatry of which the film seems to be openly railing against in every frame to hammer home the point that most often the best looking specimens and people turn out to be the most evil. The bullfights themselves also say a lot about the actual gender politics behind the outdated fairy tale.
These moments are clever, but at times the overly emotive nature of the silent film gimmick itself feels tacked on and oddly hermetic. It’s fine if you try to remind yourself that it’s a product of its time, but it’s dealing with too much modern subtext for that to hold much weight. That’s still a minor complaint, though. It’s easily one of the best silent films since the advent of sound and the best Snow White film from the recent bumper crop we seem to have had lately. You also won’t find a more gorgeous looking movie in theatres this weekend. It won’t make you miss the sound. That’s for certain.