directed by Pablo Berger
(Cohen Media Group, 2013)

It would have been enough to tell a story in a medium that requires a deep understanding of the nature and attributes of silence in filmmaking, and produce a film that registers passion and emotion with an intensity rarely seen outside of classic films. It would have been a real feat to take an old story and turn it into something completely, gothically different without losing the theme. Accomplishing all that while setting the story in a movie that is quite authentically Spanish, is pure genius. This modern day, black-and-white silent film is a true work of art.

More than a homage to the silent era, Blancanievesis so well done it never needed dialogue to begin with. With striking, vivid imagery that references Bunuel and Fellini, it's a masterpiece on its own terms.

Legendary bullfighter Antonio Vilalta (Daniel Cacho) is gored in the ring on the same night his wife dies giving birth to their daughter, Carmen. Now facing life as a quadriplegic, his conniving new wife/nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdu), a delightfully wicked queen, forces him away from his young daughter. When her caretaker grandmother dies, the helpless Carmen is packed off to live as a slave in her father's house, where he is kept a virtual prisoner in a room locked away from everyone.

Of course Carmen discovers her father's room and they develop a surreptitious relationship. When she grows into a beautiful young woman (Macarena Garcia), the wicked stepmother murders the helpless father and orders his daughter killed. This time around the woodsman does not feel pity for his victim. He actually makes an attempt to kill her, wounding her in the process and causing her to lose her memory. Left for dead, she is rescued and taken in by six traveling bullfighting dwarves. You read that right. Turning the fairy tale on its head to give it an absurdist quality lends it an aura of comic seriousness that's truer to the types of stories fairy tales truly are: dark, strange and deeply ironic.

Through her benefactors, Carmen discovers her natural flair for the ring, likely because her father had secretly given her lessons when her stepmother wasn't looking. Her beauty and skill, along with the uniqueness of a woman in the bullfighting ring, sell more tickets than since her father's day. Naturally the vindictive stepmother gets word of her, puts 2 and 2 together and decides to take matters into her own hands.

There's all kinds of humor, from wit to dark comedy, with lots of mesmerizing visuals such as intense close-ups that show every line and nuance of the characters' faces. The lack of dialogue only heightens the stark emotions. It's boldly conceived but it succeeds on every level. Some might think it's a tad over-conceptualized and rather gimmicky but exaggeration is a perfectly acceptable storytelling device as long as it's self-aware and maintains a sense of humor, another success Blancanieves can legitimately claim.

The ending is the greatest experiment in the whole story, the crowning glory of all the chances this incredible film took. It's piercing but by then you're so swept away by the beauty of this unique movie that the prick of the thorn is fitting, in a bittersweet way. It embraces the true nature of what a fairy tale is, which is to be more of a warning than a happy ending. Overall, a delightful, entertaining and thoroughly engaging movie.

review by
Mary Harvey

11 January 2014

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