Kiss of Life

film1‘Blancanieves’ retells Snow White with spicy Spanish style

If you love fairy tales, in all their infinite variety, don’t miss Blancanieves, Pablo Berger’s flavorful retelling of Snow White with a decidedly Spanish twist. It’s a silent film (no spoken dialogue, but with a vivid musical soundtrack), shot in luminous black-and-white, which only adds to its distinction. By making the story so uniquely his own, Berger proves just how universal the enduring and endlessly adaptable fairy tale format can be.

Snow White was the “It” girl of the moment last year with two separate Hollywood productions vying to bestow the kiss of life on the old tale. But Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman failed (the one too giddy, the other trying to graft on too much epic fantasy action) by attempting to recreate some kind of familiar, if nebulous, fairy tale realm. Berger shows how to do it correctly, setting his version of the tale in a very specific era and culture—Seville, Spain, circa 1920, a heady milieu rife with flamenco music, bullfighting, and women’s emancipation.

The story begins with the heroine’s parents. Her father is a famous matador, Antonio Villalta  (the elegant Daniel Giménez Cacho); her mother, Carmen (Inma Questa), is a beautiful flamenco dancer. On the day Antonio suffers a paralyzing accident in the ring, Carmen goes into labor early and dies giving birth to their daughter, called Carmencita.

Antonio can’t bear to look at the baby, who is whisked off by her grandmother (Angela Molina) to be raised. Meanwhile, the scheming nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdu), worms her way into the household of wealthy but now helpless Antonio, and drags him into marriage. Years later, on Carmencita’s Communion day, her loving abuela dies, and the young girl (winsome, vivacious Sofia Oria) is sent to live in her father’s household.

Here, filmmaker Berger borrows a page from Cinderella as her stepmother, Encarna, shuts up Carmencita in the cellar, cuts her hair, and puts her to work as the household drudge. Her only friend is a chicken—until the day she accidentally wanders into her father’s room. Smitten with the girl who now reminds him so much of her mother, Antonio rouses himself out of his emotional doldrums; he reads her fairy tales and teaches the eager girl the art of bullfighting.

Of course, Encarna finds a way to permanently squelch their growing bond, and the now young adult Carmencita (Macarena Garcia) finds herself cast out into the world. She’s revived from an attempted drowning by a troupe of dwarves with a traveling torero act; they stage mini bullfights with horned calves. She can’t remember who she is (they call her Blancanieves, i.e.: Snow White), but she joins the act when she proves she knows her way around the ring. (Animal lover alert: no bulls are killed in this movie; it’s all about the artistry of the cape.) Soon, the young lady matadora is the toast of Seville—famous enough to once again attract the notice of the jealous and powerful Encarna.

Verdu is great nasty fun as Encarna, swanning around in her chic clothes with matched pair of greyhounds, seeking advice from her mirror image in a reflecting pond. As Blancanieves, both little Oria and fresh, poised Garcia are spirited and appealing, but never sticky-sweet.

Berger has an eye for striking images (time passes as a full moon dissolves into the Communion wafer on the tip of Carmencita’s tongue), and an ear for evocative music—his score includes flamenco guitar, propulsive hand-clapping, and the occasional haunting strains of a Theremin. And these are definitely not your Uncle Walt’s dwarfs, from the cheerfully cross-dressing Josefa (Alberto Martinez) and pompous, embittered Jesusin (Emilio Gavira), to soulful Juanin (Jinson Añazco)—who is far more substantial than any typical storybook prince.

Berger’s ending will be controversial. It seemed to me to occur about five minutes short of actually resolving the story that Berger sets up with such an inventive flourish. (Although it does work as a sly, cautionary warning to artists to never, ever sign a contract for life with a diabolical agent, as Blancanieves does here.) But at least the open-ended finale adds another layer of intrigue to a richly conceived and enchanting film. 

BLANCANIEVES ★ ★ ★1/2 (out of four)

With Maribel Verdú, Macarena Garcia, Sofia Oria, and Angela Molina. Written and directed by Pablo Berger. A Cohen Media Group release. Rated PG-13.  104 minutes.

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