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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 7.69%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 1 rating

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by Jay Seaver

"Snow White and the Silent Film."
3 stars

Two movies based on Snow White came out in the United States last year, and that seemed a little excessive. That wasn't the extent of it, though - aside from the inevitable direct-to-video knock-offs, "Blancanieves" came out in Spain, and was even submitted as the country's entry in the Oscars' Foreign-Language Film category. And give it its due - as a silent, black-and-white film that imagines the characters as bullfighters, it won't be easily confused with other versions.

Once upon a time (roughly 1910), there was a great bullfighter, Antonio Villata (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who had a beautiful wife (Inma Cuesta), but their child would enter the world in tragic circumstances. As "Carmencita" (Sofia Oria) is raised by her grandmother (Ángela Molina), Antonio is seduced by his nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdú). Eventually the three are all living in the same house, and Encarna sees her now-grown stepdaughter Carmen (Macarena García) as a threat, and sends her driver and lover into the woods to dispose of her. Left for dead, she's discovered by a traveling troupe of midget bullfighters, who nurse her back to health and make her part of the act.

"Snow White" has been adapted as a feature-length film any number of times not just because it's public domain and famous and thus very appealing to cheap, risk-averse producers, but because the idea at its core - an woman who used her looks to get where she is feeling threatened by a younger, prettier girl - will probably always be something the audience will be able to hook onto. The trouble with the story is, it can tend to leave the Snow White character something of a blank, since any sign of actual ambition would serve to legitimize the villainess's fear and potentially make her too sympathetic a character. Sometimes the queen/stepmother/witch ironically makes Snow into an enemy by her actions, but that's not what happens here - Berger actually seems to go out of his way to prevent Carmen from actually doing anything besides learn bullfighting: He spends a long time on her childhood, doesn't establish a strong personality before the attempted murder, and then finds a reason for Carmen to just hang out with her new friends rather than address it.

Maybe this makes Blancanieves more style than substance, but the style is pretty nice. Berger's decision to shoot the film as a silent movie works; it restores a certain amount of the unreality and fairy tale atmosphere to a story that has both been moved to a more modern time period and had the supernatural excised (Encarna paging through a fashion magazine is actually a clever substitute for a magic mirror). Berger for the most part knows how silent movies work, seldom placing more weight on dialogue than a silent can handle. Kiko de la Rica's cinematography is pretty nice, even if (like a number of recent silents) it does sometimes feel more modern than pastiche, but it's good-looking monochrome that doesn't try to do too much. Alfonso de Vilallonga's score is terrific, a nice blend of traditional bullfighting fanfares, flamenco, and orchestral silent scoring that does an excellent job of holding the film together.

It's a nice cast, too; they all seem to get that they've got to put more of their performance into facial expression and movement than usual but don't sink to mugging or even the theatricality of the silent era. Maribel Verdú is a hoot, really - a sexy, funny, but thoroughly despicable Wicked Stepmother with a kinky side (giving a sort of pre-Code kick to the movie). Daniel Giménez Cacho is good both when Antonio is somewhat full of himself and when he's humbled. Sofía Oria and Macarena García both do fairly well despite not being being given much besides innocent virtue, and Ángela Molina is a pleasant, familiar face as the grandmother. I sort of love that at least one of the dwarfs is more than just part of an assemblage of sidekicks - they've mostly got their own personalities and don't ever become subservient to Carmen.

"Blancanieves" does enough stuff right that where Berger goes with his Snow White story is more than a little frustrating - both in terms of an unsatisfying ending and a rather passive path getting to it. It's a fun curiosity for silent film fans and an interesting idea for a new take on a classic story, but could really do with being a little more than that.

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originally posted: 01/26/13 12:11:50
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